Springboard: Tim Marshall, The Power of Geography

Springboard: Tim Marshall, The Power of Geography

You might think Tim Marshall would be chafing at the bit from the travel restrictions of the past year. After all, the author and journalist spent much of his 30-year-plus reporting career—the biggest chunk of that with Sky News, as the broadcaster’s foreign affairs editor—jetting to dangerous far-flung locales, such as Iraq during the gulf wars, Belgrade in the midst of the Kosovo crisis, and Gaza while Israel was dismantling its settlements in the mid-2000s.

But lockdowns have not affected his plans at all: too many bouts of pneumonia, picked up during his reporting days, have left Marshall with some lasting lung issues and he has had to curtail trips abroad. He says: “I had pretty much cut out air travel for the past three years, so the coronavirus hasn’t affected me that way. My horizons have shrunk and it is a bit annoying. But air travel is overrated anyway—there are the stresses of being late for the plane, remembering your passport, and security is so boring. So I really haven’t missed it.”

Marshall has used his time on the home front well, pivoting from broadcasting work to writing more long-form analysis, which has resulted in a string of current affairs best- sellers, most notably Prisoners of Geography (Elliott & Thompson), which focused on 10 maps illustrating how countries’ land- scapes—perhaps more than anything—drive global politics. The book has been a slow- burn, long-lasting hit in paperback, with the title championed by Waterstones and indie bookshops in particular, going on to shift 581,000 units for £4.6m through Nielsen BookScan UK. That makes it by far the bestselling international politics book of all time, and the only other non-fiction work to better its 210 consecutive week-run of selling 1,000 copies or more in the UK is The Official Highway Code.

Marshall “had no idea” Prisoners... would work so well. He says: “You can never really tell if a book will sell, can you? My plan always is that I’ll just write what I’m interested in and we’ll see how it goes. In retrospect, what I think happened was that it was a word-of- mouth book—I mean, there was hardly any publicity around it—which hit a nerve at a time when people were looking for context, to make sense of a multipolar world. I tried to give ways of framing an understanding of where we are, and why we are there. Plus, and I hope I’m not boasting, doing that in an accessible manner.”

He has also stayed with indie publisher Elliott & Thomspon since the publication of Prisoners..., but surely some of the bigger publishers have come calling? “I’ve had some approaches,” Marshall admits. “Three from the very big players; one came with a very big six-figure cheque. And I’m flattered, and I admire those companies, but E&T showed faith in me and I like to show faith in them. And they have proven they can handle a million-seller.”

This spring comes the direct sequel, The Power of Geography, which is essentially the same template of taking a deep dive into 10 territories. Marshall chose the areas partially because they weren’t focused on in Prisoners..., but also because each has taken on increased importance in the recent years in a time of uncertainty.

He says: “I think we’re headed in a new China/America bipolar world, but we’re not there yet... we’re in a time of great flux. I focus on Australia, for example, which would happily have sailed along being friendly with America and China, but because of the push and pull is now forced to make strategic choices which they would rather not have to make. Turkey is sharpening its elbows and expanding in all directions, making claims on areas on its supposed NATO ally Greece. They may be legitimate historic claims, but they would not have been as forcefully made if we were in a solid bipolar world with an undistracted America. A lot of us don’t like the concept of America as a world policeman, but in the absence of police, other people will attempt to enforce the law.”

Marshall also takes a look at Old Blighty in the context of its role post-Brexit, and makes an interesting point that the UK’s world standing might be best served by its soft power—the reach of the BBC, the worldwide influence of media outlets like the Guardian and the Daily Mail, the global popularity of entertainment such as the Premier League—but all that is dependent on a strong economy and government support. He also tackles the sticky wicket of what a potential break-up from a second Scottish independent referendum would mean. He says: “I’ve approached that from a defence point of view, which would be a large blow to the UK: losing the submarine bases in Scotland would leave Britain potentially without its nuclear deter- rent, or with rebuilding costs in the many billions. Strategically, that diminishes Britain and NATO’s capability, and probably would only please Putin and China.”

A peripatetic route
Marshall grew up just outside Leeds and has stayed close to his roots, being a home and away season ticket holder for Leeds United Football Club. And although he was always interested in journalism, he had a circuitous route in. He says: “I remember vividly at age 11 seeing footage from Auschwitz and being just absolutely shocked. But it also sparked an interest in the world, including the darker side of it, and a wanderlust and intellectual curiosity.” But it took a while to get into his eventual career. Marshall left school, worked on building sites and then joined the RAF for a few years, before “falling into” a job at radio station LBC.

He notes that it would be extremely rare for someone without a university degree to get into journalism now: “I want our scientists and doctors to have the highest intellectual training. I don’t think it’s necessary for journalism, and a newsroom needs to recruit from all sections of society to get those different experiences. Journalists don’t need degrees as it’s not the science lab, it’s the petri dish. Even though there have been great strides in levelling up the ethnic diversity of newsrooms, it still seems we’re recruiting from that same pool of the best universities, and I don’t think that’s healthy.”

Having seen more than most people will see of war and misery, he remains remark- ably upbeat. He says: “First I think we shouldn’t be fooled by the cruel shrieking on social media, as it really doesn’t represent the world. I would say I’m guardedly optimistic about how the world is going. There is no doubt we’re in a time of heightened nationalism, where globalism has stumbled. But there are positive sides to globalism, too: think of how much better off we are now than a century ago in terms of health, longevity, eradication of disease, the levels of poverty of absolute poverty. Of course, that’s a macro view. But I do think in the past 70 years we have made great strides in the concepts of oneness and internationalism.”

The Power of Geography (9781783965371) is published by Elliott & Thompson on 4th March. The hardback costs £16.99.