Great Expectations 2.0

In Great Expectations 2.0, Inez Bartram Vilar reflects upon the first ever article published in The Bloomsbury Geographer. This retrospective response seeks to re-evaluate the initial aims of the Bloomsbury Geography and prospects for the future of the geographical discipline, outlined in an article by Paul Wheatley in 1968.

Delving deep into archive – which has, to a less dramatic effect, been digitalized – I was unsure as to what I would find, or, for that matter, what I was looking for. Was I to find obsolete climate studies? Expedition reports blurred by imperial gazes? I had all 19 issues of The Bloomsbury Geographer at my fingertips, leading to its unfortunate demise in 1995.

Gracing the first pages of the inaugural issue of The Bloomsbury Geographer, the article summarises the author – geographer Paul Wheatley’s – ‘Great Expectations’ for the journal. Not only was I drawn to the literary reference its title makes, but also what it alluded to: his prospect, or even, vision, for the future of the Bloomsbury Geographer.

A discipline spanning national boundaries, we are constantly urged to consider cultural context in pretty much everything we do. Flashback to 1968, when the article was written, and in fact, before many of the readers of this blog were even born: the Vietnam War was fully-fledged, many of British ex-colonies – Tanzania, Fiji, United Arab Emirates – were still under British rule, and Martin Luther King Jr. had just been murdered.

Prof. Paul Wheatley was a professor of Geography at UCL, before moving on to become the chairman of the seminal Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. A ‘geographical guru’, he also contributed to the paramount Domesday Geography of England (The Independent, 1999).

As if the abovementioned weren’t enough to constitute his legacy, his most significant contribution to the geographical discipline lay in his studies of the historical geography of South-East Asia and the Arab world, having been the first British geographer to explore these. These achievements culminated to an award by The Association of American Geographers for ‘two decades of productive enquiry’ (Fôret, 1999).

I had initially intended to write a critical account of Great Expectations, perhaps prompted by my academic studies – which constantly encourage scrutiny – but this prospect was soon diminished as I read on.

Wheatley begins the article with ‘the Bloomsbury Geographer is being born at an exciting moment in the evolution not only of geography but of the university community itself’, a statement equally fitting to Great Expectations 2.0 – almost 50 years later – though this time referring to its re-birth.

I was somewhat surprised to find an extremely thoughtful article, with chilling insight, and above all relevant prospects for the future of the Bloomsbury Geographer, and the geographical discipline, despite Wheatley’s claim that he has ‘no special competence to make predictions’.

In relation to the geographical discipline, Wheatley remarks:

‘How often has one heard the admission that a geography department is merely a convenient meeting place for those with an interest in the surface of the earth, a statement usually followed by a pious recitation of that holistic incarnation which is designed to exorcise the humbug of pretending that a historian, an economist, a geologist and a physicist are engaged in the investigation of common problems?

Though we longer characterized by our interest ‘in the surface of the earth’, I believe this excerpt is in essence a more eloquent approach to the claim that geographers spend most of their time ‘colouring in’, an allegation we face all too often. 50 years on, the definition of the discipline is still as contested as the above statement suggests. Perhaps my favourite quote from this article likens human geography to dessert, ‘a multidisciplinary pudding made up of discrete fragments of other disciplines blended according to taste’, a statement that I feel characterizes my experience studying geography at UCL, given we have unique the ability to truly ‘make what we want of it’.

Despite Prof. Wheatley’s prophetic claims regarding the geographical discipline, I highly doubt he envisioned a web-platform for the Bloomsbury Geographer in 2015, as he modestly admits ‘what changes will take place during the lifetime of the Bloomsbury Geographer [he is] not competent to say’. However, the following statement reflects our exact motives for changing its format: ‘the pressures of social change built up to the point where they demanded new institutional solutions to the problems of a technologically demanding world’. We hope the Bloomsbury Geographer blog will encourage a fluid flow of contributions, easily accessible to all, a medium I believe Wheatley would describe as being ‘deliberately planned to take advantage of the tide of opinion.’ In some sense, we are also ‘respond[ing] to the stimuli of change transmitted through the seamless web of society and culture’, a society which is being shaped by one’s technological presence.

But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with the Bloomsbury Geographer itself? Prof. Wheatley’s prospect for the journal is that it would be used as a vehicle through which to observe change within the geographical discipline. It was nothing short of chilling (in the most positive sense of the word) reading his plea to ‘watch the pages of the Bloomsbury Geographer to see what changes in undergraduate training do actually take place within the next decade, where the forecast of geography will be found’. And if no such answers were found, Wheatley offers an explanation: ‘If the change is not recorded there then the journal must have become defunct.’

With all that said, I can only re-iterate Prof. Wheatley’s claim; we want nothing more than for the articles in the Bloomsbury Geographer to reflect the wide array of topics available for study at UCL – within one of the oldest and most established geography departments in the country – but not only, we invite you to draw on your personal interests, everyday experiences, or whatever else inspires you to write a geographically-minded article.

My interest in the Bloomsbury Geographer is not limited to its revival, but also sustention, which, in essence, was what prompted this retrospective account. Flash-forward to 2026 and I hope a the Bloomsbury Geographer is overflowing with stimulating material and saturated with geographic insight, not to mention an article entitled ‘Great Expectations 3.0’ – but until then, write, contribute, and read on!

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