Prisoners of Geography: Tim Marshall reviewed by Chris Longden

This review was written by a member of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team. The Review Team take part in a special reviewing workshop at the start of the Festival before attending Festival events.

Tim Marshall has a beard. He also has a long pointy stick and likes to prod it at enormous maps of the world and urge you to get all giddy about mountain ranges and polar ice caps and the like.

But don’t let the above lead you to any stereotypical images of your average tweedy jacketed geography teacher. Because Tim happens NOT to be a big fan of the way that geography is being taught in British schools these days (“sure, learn about your soil samples … but unless you have a basic grasp of the world’s geography, you don’t have the framework on which to hang this knowledge”).

So, Tim Marshall’s approach – “putting the GEO back into geo-politics” is deemed to be highly unfashionable, to be too deterministic. In fact, George Galloway very publically bawled out the author’s take on how the world works.

But Tim Marshall did a cracking job of convincing his audience of his approach. For the next 45 minutes, his listeners were treated to a whistle-stop tour of each of the major continents and current conflict zones, with an outline of how and why these areas of the globe will always remain sizzling hot points of combat. We were invited to venture into the mind of Putin (“admittedly, not a pleasant place to be,”) and were challenged to think beyond the ‘nation state’- to consider issues such as tribal, racial, religious affiliations – as well as the desperation of the bigger, more powerful countries in their quest for water, energy, trade, and in their jockeying for position with regards to NATO and other alliances.

He told his listeners; “I’m not about morality”, but that he prefers to focus on each nation’s point of view. His responses to questions from the audience were excellent; tackling such diverse issues as the role of the digital age, space, devolutionary politics and whether British people (lurking as we do, in a “prime piece of real estate”) should be more concerned about China’s obsession with trade, the growth of South American’s power, or with the differing responses of each EU country to the current refugee crisis.

In fact, my only criticism of the event was that he covered so many countries and conflict zones and got so wild with his big stick and the maps, that at times I felt like a cat watching a ping-pong match. But then, hey. The earth is a damned big place after all. And perhaps the festival should have furnished the author with a 2 to 3 hour slot instead. Judging by the packed Playhouse, this might not be a bad approach for the future.

So overall? At the risk of upsetting other authors out there, I have to be honest and state that its very rare that I feel tempted to ‘buy the book’ after seeing a talk by a writer.  But for sure, here is one piece of non-fiction that I hope to be receiving in my Christmas stocking.

Chris Longden hails from Manchester but lived in the Kalahari for 4 years with the San bushmen, writing 2 books about them. Chris now lives in a slightly less sandy place – Huddersfield –  and runs an international charity in between writing novels (northern comedy) and blogging at


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