Speaking Volumes: The British Isles: A Geographical and Economic Survey

July 28, 1995

Sergey Artobolevskiy on L. D. Stamp and S. Beaver's The British Isles: A Geographical and Economic Survey.

During my 25-year career I have used thousands of books, from my early days at Moscow State University to my current research post at the Institute of Geography, the Russian Academy of Sciences. Naturally the deepest impression was made by my own work, but the editor tells me that the rules of this column disallow that.

Forced to choose one book which "has meant most to me in my academic field" points me to one which I have to read from the first till the last page.

L. D. Stamp and S. Beaver's 1933 work symbolises my first 12 years in professional geography. From 1970 I specialised in the economic and social geography of the United Kingdom. My PhD was about the transformation of the spatial structure of industry in postwar Britain. Only later in my career did I become interested in the rest of western Europe and for the past seven years Russia and the former USSR as well.

But many of my colleagues still think that the only country I know anything about is the UK - an impression I encourage from time to time by brandishing Stamp and Beaver's book.

But forward to the past. At the beginning of my second year at university the department of economic and political geography sub-divided our group into studying capitalist or developing countries. By chance it was proposed that I do the UK. I agreed as it was more prestigious to specialise in developed countries, than those in the third world.

Within a week I visited Dr N. M. Polskaya, who was to be my tutor for the next four years. I have never met a geographer, even in the UK, with a better knowledge of the country. She was impressed by my ignorance - I knew, that London was the capital, but only suspected that it was somewhere in the south. Her reaction was simple: she opened her desk drawer and pulled out Stamp and Beaver which she promptly handed over. Obviously sceptical of my academic ability she asked me to precis several chapters. There was now no escape from having to read the book so I overcame my laziness and started.

The early chapters reinforced my worst childhood impressions gleaned from relatives who were all social scientists: geography is very time-consuming and requires a lot of boring "rough" work. I can only imagine how long the authors took to write this book as I took me almost a month to read it.

The book's hundreds of pages contain dozens of maps and tables and abundant facts. Its authors were the first to prepare a detailed geographical "portrait" of Britain and they covered a wide range of subjects - from "geology to ideology".

Naturally the economic and social geography of the UK in the 1990s has little in common with the situation in the 1930s. But the book is still useful as a physical and historical geography work. Even more important, it is still a necessary aid in understanding modern Britain. Interestingly in many British scientific libraries the book can still be found in the reference section - some students still use it.

I used both the original British editions and the Russian translation. The latter deserves a special mention. Published in 1948 it was practically free from censorship. Only the preface and two chapters were excluded (and only once can one detect the censor's hand).

Even in the preface to the Russian edition, prepared by Professor I. A. Vitver, propaganda-laden words about crisis and the end of capitalism are rare. Most of it is a superb analysis of the book which illustrates Professor Vitver's knowledge of world literature on the subject. And all written in 1948 when Stalin and Beria were killing or imprisoning thousands of people in their purge against "foreign influence".

Early sclerosis is the reason why I do not remember the geology of the UK in the Devonian period or the type of soils in East Anglia. But I know where to find this information.

And I am ready for the first meeting with a young man or woman wanting to specialise in the geography of the UK. I will tell him or her - first you have to read Stamp and Beaver. And several days later he or she will not understand why this youngish professor suggested such a dull book.

Maybe it is inseparable from my nostalgia.

Professor Sergey Artobolevskiy is a researcher at the Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences.

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