(3 September 1999)
A teacher at school once asked us in a geography lesson which was further east, Edinburgh or Liverpool, and those of us who could tell east from west, and knew which side of Britain which city was on, had no hesitation in shooting our hands up and saying that Edinburgh was further east.
I still remember the shock which greeted the teacher's smiling announcement that we were wrong. Edinburgh is to the west of Liverpool. When we didn't believe him we went and looked it up in the atlas, and blow me down, he was perfectly right. Britain leans over quite a lot from right to left, just enough for Edinburgh on the east coast (and a bit inland) to be west of Liverpool. I have never forgotten that fact, and a fat lot of good it has done me.
And last week I garnered another paradox to go with it. We were having dinner with friends called Tim and Liz, and Tim's brother Richard was over from the States, and suddenly for no reason at all Richard said, "By the way, can you guys tell me which are the most northerly, southerly, easterly and westerly of the American states? That's all. Farthest north, south, east and west."
We sat thinking for a while. In fact, Richard got a bit bored and left the room, during which time we discussed it communally it, or, to put it another way, shared our ignorance. Indeed, Liz went and got an an atlas, but the rest of us sat on it so she couldn't use it. It's at times like this that I wish desperately I knew more about American history and geography. It's not that I wasn't paying attention in school. It's just that no school I went to ever taught us anything about America.
"Furthest south must be California or New Mexico," said my wife.
"Unless it's some part of Louisiana," I offered. "Of course, it would probably have been Puerto Rico if Puerto Rico hadn't voted not to become a state."
We fell silent in awe and gratitude to any part of the world that refuses to be American.
"Bit like Greenland being the only part of the world to leave the European Union," said my wife. "I admire them for that."
"How could Greenland leave Europe?" said Liz. "It's not in Europe."
"It was part of Denmark then, I think," I said. "But I don't think it is now."
"Maybe it's part of America now!" said my wife. "Maybe Greenland is the most easterly bit of the USA!"
"Can't be," I said. "Canada, perhaps. Not the USA."
Do you have well-informed intellectual conversations like this at your dinners? No? Aren't you jealous?
"What about the most westerly bit?" said Liz. "British Columbia?"
I had a sudden inspiration, based on the idea of Puerto Rico.
"Got it!" I said. "Hawaii!"
As soon as I said it, we knew it must be true. Which other state is way out in the Pacific, west of everywhere else? Well, then.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it weren't the most southerly too," I said. "It's pretty tropical, isn't it? Well, if it's more tropical than California, there you are!"
"Alaska," said Liz with another surge of brain power. "Alaska's got to be the northerly one."
Of course. It had to be Alaska. Which left just the easternmost. We were juggling Rhode Island and Maine in the bliss of sheer ignorance when Richard came back.
"How are you doing?" he said.
"Well, Alaska for north," we said, "and Hawaii for west."
"And Hawaii for south, too," I said, gambling.
Richard's eyes widened.
"Very good!" he said. "Hawaii is the most southerly and westerly. But what about the most easterly?"
We tried all the possibles in New England, but he wouldn't have any of them.
"Sorry," he said. "The answer is Alaska again."
There was a stunned silence, not unlike the stunned silence which, all those years ago, greeted the news that Liverpool is east of Edinburgh.
"Hold on," I said. "Are you saying that Alaska stretches all the way across the top of Canada and overlaps the eastern states?"
"No," said Richard. "I'm saying that the 'westernmost' tip of Alaska is just across the 180th meridian, in the eastern hemisphere. Therefore it isn't very far west – it's actually very far east!"
Of course, I had to look up the atlas before I could believe him – but he's absolutely right. The easternmost point of the United States, at the farthest extremity of the farflung Aleutian archipelago, is a little group of islands called, naturally enough, the Near Islands – at longitude 173E.