Maps of the human art

Image of Harry Eyres

As we send out probes to Mars to discover whether the red planet is an uninhabitable wilderness, it seems to me that we are losing contact with the Earth. I can see numerous signs of this. One is that, quite simply, people have no idea where they are.

Sometimes, in different cities, I go into shops or offices asking employees for help in locating a nearby address. Nearly always they seem to have no clue, not just about the nearby address but even about where their own place of work is located. Of course they must have some idea, enough to be able to get there but they appear uninformed about – or possibly uninterested in – the way where they are links to other places, the layout of the neighbourhood.

As you might guess, I link this to the unearthly proliferation of communication devices that promote a disembodied connectedness. A landline is already coming to seem as outmoded as a horse-drawn carriage. Outmoded and, perhaps, also sedate or boring. But I persist in thinking that there is a difference between a conversation on a landline and one on a mobile. A landline conversation feels that much more grounded; you have some sense where the other person is – in their own home, or possibly garden – rather than walking the night like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, on a high-speed train or in an airport.

Also sedate and boring, for many people nowadays, is the notion of a map. Google maps and GPS devices have almost rendered the old printed or folded map obsolete. A BBC Radio 4 Today report on July 14 concluded that paper maps have a future only as art objects, or fetishes. Sales of road atlases have halved in the UK since 2005. But I am something of a map fanatic. I treasure my old maps, even when they split along the folds and the edges fray. I have maps of places that no longer exist or, at least, street plans of parts of Barcelona that have changed out of recognition since the city staged the 1992 Olympics.

I treasure my maps because they are in some sense companions; they accompanied me on memorable journeys, lying on the seat beside me while I drove through the Picos de Europa in Spain or the gipsy towns of Trebujena and Lebrija on my way to sherry country.

My love affair with maps started when I was young. I liked map-reading for my father on our summer holidays in Scotland but more interesting than the roads themselves were the mountains on either side, showing darker on the road map the higher they were. Maps made me look out at the landscape, even beyond what the eye could see: I scanned the Munros ahead, the lofty Cairngorms, the marvellous and eccentric mountains of the west with their evocative names, Liathach, Beinn Eighe, Canisp and Quinag, which always sounded the most savage of them all. Much more detailed than the road maps were the inch-to-the-mile Ordnance Survey maps we used for hill-walking, with their fascinating contour lines, the marking of mysterious cairns, the inclusion of tiny lochans.

One of my most treasured possessions from the past 40 years has been a tall foolscap volume called Complete Atlas of the British Isles, beautifully published by Reader’s Digest with maps provided by Ordnance Survey. This is a geographical treasure trove, with sections on “The Nature of the Land”, “The Country We Live In”, “The Fabric of a Nation”, “Places in the British Isles”. There are shorter chapters on such fascinating topics as the mystery of bird migrations, the distribution of badgers, language and dialects, and the movement of people. The whole thing is informed by a deeply historical sense of geography both physical (there are excellent sections on geology) and human. As far as I know it was never republished, which seems a terrible mistake; every schoolboy and -girl in the land should have one.

The Atlas has a foreword by Lord Mountbatten of Burma, in which he begins by saying “maps have always had a fascination for me. When I studied them as a youngster I travelled in imagination to distant parts of the world.”

Maps encourage imagination and exploration, which is precisely the opposite of what Satnav encourages, which is the passive submission to a disembodied voice giving instructions. Maps, for me, are an essential element in planning travels, and envisaging new ones: on my recent trip to Connecticut I took a modest paper map of New England that proved useless for navigating roads but has given me great thoughts of exploring the lakes and uplands of Maine.

On reflection it seems essential that maps should not be too perfect or complete, that they should include blank or unmapped spaces. The map in Jorge Luis Borges’s one-paragraph short story, “On Exactitude in Science” (1946), which is on the same scale as the empire itself, becomes too cumbersome for use, and ends up in tattered fragments.

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