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Non Fiction

So You Think You Know About Britain?

Danny Dorling is a professor of human geography. I thought it was refreshing to combine geography with social sciences and expose many surprising trends of how the British population behaves geographically. Some of the facts I already know, some facts are surprising and beg for further validation. We’ll come to that later on for now, let me give you the gist of what Professor Dorling research findings.

I always think London is a different country than the rest of Britain and reading the recent London mayoral election, I’m not alone in thinking this. For a person who lives 60 miles outside and commute to London to work everyday, I feel the differences. No longer can a majority of areas in Britain be described as “average”, with a broad mix of people doing different jobs and earning a range of incomes. Areas are diverging in character, both socially and economically. The North-South divide as depicted in Gaskell’s novel “North and South” persists. Very interesting as well that there is a clear demarcation line where the North-South divide is (and it is not the border line between Scotland and England!). Divorcees, for instance in the book, tend to move to the coast, for cheaper housing.

The only significant way in which we are becoming less ghettoised is by race: black and Asian people are now less likely to be concentrated in cities or in poor areas of towns than they once were. Britain is more segregated by postcode than ever, which leads to “nicer” areas becoming even more desirable, and therefore more attractive to people who can shell out to get away from undesirable people and areas. I don’t think Britain is the only place on earth that this happens. It is a common sight in most capitalist countries.

I read on the news that London workers spent an average of 20% of their salary on transport costs and we have the most exorbitant train fares in the whole of Europe. I agree that a lack of suitable housing near to suitable jobs, at a time when National Rail continuously mark-up their annual fares by 8% has resulted me paying £3,500 one year to £3,800 p.a. the next to commute 60 miles to London to work. Public transport are undermines and cars usage is promoted, has caused us to clog up the roads by commuting to jobs that will pay our higher mortgages. What we need to start doing, Dorling argues, is to “point out repeatedly how precarious we have made our lives” and to ask “if there were not a better way we could arrange our affairs”.

Speaking of personal affairs, the 1990’s “literary” phenomenon of Bridget Jones diaries (semi-colon the word literary, as I’m not sure if the story of a dimwit could be classified as literature) has its roots in the demographic shift of male:female ratio in London, where more women than men now lives in the city. While Bridget Jones is fortunate enough to choose between two men, many London girls may not be so lucky. It is interesting to note that because females has additional / spare X-chromosome that gives them a little more leeway to cope with genetic damage and continue to develop rather than miscarry (page 43).

Immigration is often seen as negative locals who feel that immigrants have taken away the locals job opportunities and causes a burden in social benefits. Dorling claims that “immigration often alleviates overcrowding. People move to where they are needed and away from where they are not. Bear this in mind the next time you read something negative about immigrants in Britain.” (page 67). Immigration is often blamed for the overpopulation for Britain and a question of optimal population number is elusive and politicians have swayed between far too many or far too few arguments. My problem with immigration is that it is being over generalised and simplified. It’s not a number game, nor it is supposed to be an open door policy. It is being able to look at what kind of immigrants we need and how a country could strike a balance. A balance between race and ethnic, professional and manual labour, demand and supply, the number of immigrants and emigrants. There is no easy answer for this but I was intrigued with the stats and proposals that were presented on the chapter titled “Overkeen, Underpaid and Over Here – Immigration”.

I think I was more interested in the first 5 out of the 8 chapters of the book and towards the end of the book my interest started to wane as the findings presented became rather bizarre. I almost feel as if it’s a gimmick to challenge our popular assumptions to live up to the book title “So you think you know about Britain?” – so let me cook up some bizarre findings that will shock you! Sure, there are lots of facts and figures but I began to question the basis of the stats. Stats are hardly always objective. I believe once you believed in a theory, you can always find the one aspect of your stats that support your theory without having the ‘other’ stats to give the audience a more all-rounder view of an issue (In the book, the text is about 230 pages, plus 70 pages of notes).. Say for this argument that it is not the elderly people that are draining the National Health Services fund but the ones who has mental health problem.

“One in three families in Britain contain a member suffering from poor mental heath, most often because high rates of financial inequalities in British society make the population more anxious and prone to depression than in the bulk of more equitably affluent nations.” – page 202

Uh-huh I’m not persuaded. I hardly think financial inequality is the only reason why I would possibly be insane.

Dorling believes that knowledge is power: that if we have the facts, then we will act on our unease and seek to live lives that are a little less fearful. “For this country to change for the better,” he concludes, “we must all get to know it better.” The last chapter is evangelistic of the cause for social change and “ask why those we put in power were so callous and mean-spirited, and why we did not do more to stop them from being so.” It sounded a little like Martin Luther King’s speech for change, albeit for a different cause.

The book is an interesting one. I enjoyed a good half of it and read the numbers and charts in delight, although some of it went over my head. This reading experience made me wish I studied geography instead.


I’m reading this for Non-Memoir Non-Fiction Challenge

Paperback. Publisher: Constable 2011; Length: 231 pages (308 with notes and index); Setting: Britain. Source: Library copy. Finished reading at: 4th April 2012.

One other view:

Devolution matters: There is no longer one government that could tackle them (the issues), even if it had the political will.  It could take on some aspects of them, and encourage other governments to tackle others, but the sort of centralised government with authority to act that could have responded to this book if it had appeared before 1999 no longer exists.  Until people on the left start to incorporate that sort of constitutional framework into their thinking, they’re going to find it very hard to deliver on their aspirations even if they get elected.

About the writer:

Daniel Dorling, frequently referred to as Danny Dorling, is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield. He is also a Professor at University of Canterbury and in the Department of Social Medicine of the University of Bristol.

Born in 1968, Dorling graduated with a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Geography, Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Newcastle in 1989 and completed a PhD in the Visualization of Spatial Social Structure under the supervision of Stan Openshaw in 1991. He then taught at the University of Bristol and was appointed Chair of Quantitative Human Geography at the University of Leeds.

In 2009, he was awarded the Gold award of Geographical Association and the Back Award of the Royal Geographical Society for his work on national and international public policy. He has worked both with the British government and the World Health Organisation and is frequently asked to comment on current issues on TV and the radio.

Since 2003 he has been a Professor of Human Geography based at the University of Sheffield. He has mapped (mainly using cartograms), analysed and commented upon UK demographic statistics. Many of his published papers, commentaries and reports are freely available online. In 2005 he started the Internet-based Worldmapper which now has about 700 world maps and spreadsheets of international statistics. He has been on radio, television and in newspaper articles.

He lives in Sheffield with his family.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


10 thoughts on “So You Think You Know About Britain?

  1. This sounds like the sort of book I’d enjoy – I do love stats!

    I have to agree with you about mental health. I suspect the poor mental health of Brits is due to the break down of the family unit and the way most people are isolated from their extended family support. Poverty doesn’t cause poor mental health – most people in poorer nations are far happier than us.

    Posted by Jackie Bailey (@farmlanebooks) | April 14, 2012, 11:21 am
    • Jackie,
      I agree with what you said about the breakdown of family unit. It is the support that the communities need to alleviate problems of mental health. I enjoyed reading the book, I hope you do too!

      Posted by JoV | April 15, 2012, 7:25 am
  2. Sounds like an interesting read. I live in Essex but I teach in an inner-city primary school in the East End. Boy is there a big difference between these two areas and there are certainly some tough issues where I work. I’ll keep a look out for this book.

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | April 14, 2012, 3:02 pm
  3. I’m just glad I don’t live there any more – I rarely hear anything positive about living in the UK these days…

    Posted by Tony | April 15, 2012, 10:54 am
  4. Sounds like an interesting read. Not sure I could read a whole book like this, but loved the points you highlighted. I often think that people can take a place for granted if they never visit others places. I come from a relatively moderate sized town which is reasonably well off in most areas however majority of the inhabitants moan about it. But when I went away to university in Leeds (as exciting as the city was) I missed my hometown. I think we can spend far too much time believing the grass is greener everywhere else.

    Posted by jessicabookworm | April 17, 2012, 1:57 pm


  1. Pingback: It’s a wrap! April 2012 « JoV's Book Pyramid - May 1, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Ten White Geese
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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