The road not taken: Gavin Francis on his long love affair with geography

The blanks on the map still cry out to me to fill them in.

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Stunt double, lion tamer, astronaut, chocolate tester – back in the age when my principal source of income was the tooth fairy, any of those would have done. With age came disillusionment, and the dawning of common sense. Stunt double? Too injurious. Lion tamer? Too cruel. Astronaut? Too claustrophobic. And as for chocolate tester: I knew even the tooth fairy wasn’t a fan of rotten teeth.

Innocent, uncomplicated ideas of a dream job ceded to a long love affair with geography, kindled and fuelled by an immense and utterly enthralling world atlas in the local library I visited as a child. Lists of capital cities, principal exports and imports, rivers and their tributaries, the highest mountains of each continent – this was the stuff that captured and energised my imagination, so distant from the little village in Fife that was home. These were Cold War years: the USSR stretched from Europe’s heart to the International Date Line; Africa seemed an impossible immensity; the white spaces of the Arctic, Antarctic, and Tibetan plateau were an intoxication. Asked on to University Challenge last year I was surprised to learn I’m still fastest on the buzzer when questioned on geography.

Between hillwalks, birdwatching and scout camps, my favourite thing was to read: not just atlases, but Jean George’s My Side of the Mountain, Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, and the ubiquitous Famous Five: all tales of Swiss Family Robinson-resilience and parent-free autonomy. But something happened in my mid-teens, shortly after I was given a different kind of atlas – one of human anatomy. I fell in love with the elegance and beauty of the human body revealed there, and resolved to learn everything I could about that more intimate landscape. Slowly, I lost faith in the possibility of building a life purely of travel and mapping. In my most enthusiastic moments I’d seen cartography as a way crafting panoptic perspectives on the world, and cataloguing the diversity and the brilliance of humanity; now I turned to medicine as a way – perhaps – of mapping aspects of the same things.

It’s been 25 years since I started training in medicine. Since then I’ve reached the Arctic and Antarctic, worked and travelled in Africa, journeyed across the Tibetan plateau, seen some of the former USSR. But I’ve made those journeys not as a cartographer or geographer, but as a doctor and writer. I know now that in some way I will always be mapping, scoping out the evolution of landscapes, meditating on the distinctions between “space” and “place”. It’s still a pleasure and a privilege to practise medicine, but part of me will always wonder about that path not taken; what other spaces, and places, I might have seen.

This article is from our “Road not taken” series

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