I had a really inspiring geography teacher – several of them in fact – in a strong geography department at the school I went to. Hugely enthusiastic people who imparted that enthusiasm in their teaching. Enjoyable subjects tend to be easier to work hard at.
Leeds was one of the top departments in the country for geography at the time. It turned out to be an extremely friendly department as well, a nice bunch of people and really nice lecturers who were very active with their own research and attracted a lot of money to the university for the work they were doing.
When I was at university, people misunderstood geography. They would say, ‘If you’re doing geography, what are you going to do after? Teach it?’ They didn’t seem to realise that the skills you acquire in the degree are well respected by employers. Something like 20 per cent of geographers ended up going into accountancy and management consultancy at the time. People don’t seem to realise how versatile it is.
I’d had a bit of a yearning to go to Africa. Cradle of humanity and all that. I wanted to see some of the geography I’d been learning about, to be able to travel through the different latitudes, across the Equator and back out the other side.
I travelled 14,500 miles from Nottingham to Nairobi. A guy from Nottingham was trying to take a Bedford MK 10-ton truck to east Africa so he could run safaris along the coast of Tanzania and Malawi. It was a tiny advert in a local newspaper that just said ‘Adventurous people wanted. Phone Dave’.
I set off with a group of around 20 people – fewer than that by the time we got Nairobi due to ill health, malaria or just having enough as it was pretty rough. It made you very resourceful. I spoke more French than anyone else so I ended up going to a lot of the embassies and doing the negotiations for crossing the borders which was great experience.
We got up into some really remote places. We saw the mountain gorillas in the Rwenzori mountain range. We saw the Virunga National Park. We stayed with a group of pygmies in Mount Hoyo called the Twa. We’d park up and spend the night on the edge of villages in the middle of Ghana. I remember one morning waking up to all these whispering voices. I looked round and there were children surrounding us watching us sleep. The moment we moved they scattered.
“It’s only when friends point out to me that I seem to see the world through a geographer’s eyes that I realise how much that’s the case”
I so wanted to enjoy broadcasting that I was terrified of actually making a start. If I didn’t like it, what would I do then? I remember walking into the newsroom at BBC Radio Leicester and thinking it was bedlam. Phones were going off everywhere, people were flying around editing stories and so on. It was very exciting. I didn’t know how anybody knew what they were meant to be doing, but I felt very excited by that environment.
The BBC has many faults as we all know, and goodness knows we’ve been beset by scandals lately which we all acknowledge could have been handled better. But I still think by and large we are the benchmark by which other people judge themselves.
The BBC’s role is to be impartial and trusted. Our job is to curate the news but not tell people what to think. To present the facts as best we can. To hold people to account – particularly those in elected office or public officials. And it’s to explain very complex stories in ways that are relevant to people. Thankfully we don’t have to be patriarchal and patrician about it anymore – it’s not ‘We’re the BBC and we know best’. What’s nice is that we’ve been able to change the conversation we have with the audience.
In my job, I hadn’t realised initially quite how often I use geography. It’s only when friends point out to me that I seem to see the world through a geographer’s eyes that I realise how much that’s the case. Always wanting to know how much of a story is about a place – the geography of a place. Obviously a lot of international stories these days are to do with strategic problems and conflict, which is all about the geography.
The best newsrooms are stronger for having lots of disciplines in them. At the BBC we have every subject under the sun that people will have done at degree level. You need to be able to report a breadth of stories, so if you’ve got physicists, chemists, historians, engineers, geographers and English students then you’ve got a really good spread of subjects that will be covered.
1969 Born in Leicestershire
1990 Graduated from the University of Leeds with a degree in Geography
1990 Joined a seven-month expedition across Africa
1991 Started working at BBC Radio Leicester
2000 Joined BBC News
This was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.