Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)
…any map, any reduction of a complex landscape into two clean, clear dimensions, somehow thrilled and comforted me. More than thirty years on, it still does.
Mike Parker, Map Addict (2009)
Inviting yet comforting. Between them, Marlow and Parker come close to pinning down the contradictory allure of maps. They are inviting – even after the blank spaces have been largely filled in – because their unfamiliar shapes and place names promise exotic adventure. They are comforting, because this exoticism is rendered unthreatening by its containment within two dimensions, within blocks of pastel colour, within straight grid lines.
Nothing more clearly embodies our impulse to rational order than maps. Yet they also provoke reactions that spring from other, entirely visceral impulses. As Frank Jacobs, creator of the wonderful Strange Maps blog, puts it:
There is the instrumental part of maps and there is also an emotional part of maps – that unquantifiable emotional connection to that type of representation of reality. I’ve had so many responses to my blog from people saying “when I was a kid I used to read atlases like they were books, because every page was like a story, and I’d get really engrossed in it, and travel the coastline and see where the borders were, and imagine being there and how people there lived.”
However loudly the maps might protest that they are not bedtime stories but sensible, empirical creatures, we instinctively know better. The border between cartography and imagination has always been, at best, sketchy. Literature, painting and even music are littered with maps, grounding their artifice in a sense of the “real”; meanwhile, maps often stylise “reality” to the point of artifice or fantasy. And the best maps are themselves works of art.
“Are you saying the map is wrong?”
We trust maps to tell us something about our spatial relationship, but we don’t always get the fact that they’re also lying to us. On a very fundamental level they’re two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional reality, so they always distort the surface. And also in the selection of what is put on the map, they will leave out a lot. The mapmaker is like the editor of the reality depicted in the map, so it reflects a subjective point of view.
Maps necessarily show us only a thin sliver of the world: they are defined by the variable or variables they document, and also by the biases of their “editors”. For instance, cartographers have long argued about the best way to flatten out our globe. The map of the world as we know it in Britain betrays a number of prejudices: it places us in the middle of the map, in the top half, and by using the traditional Mercator projection it makes our land mass disproportionately large. The West’s inflated self-importance is not only reflected in such a map but, arguably, exacerbated by it. Since the 1970s there have been voices clamouring for the Gall-Peters projection to be used instead. Their side of the debate is perhaps best summed up by The West Wing.
Worthy as it may be, the Gall-Peters projection is fairly useless: the Mercator version, at least, gets the shapes right and enables maritime navigation and exploration. Indeed, we owe our world map to the exploratory (imperialist) impulse described by Marlow in Heart of Darkness: the desire to discover new lands and stick a flag in them. From about the 15th century onwards, maps had to be instruments, where before they were often content to be symbols. Medieval maps like Hereford Cathedral’s famous Mappa Mundi would certainly not have got you to America:
These maps were more concerned with piety than accuracy. In many cases, ecclesiastical map-makers knew better, but chose to ignore topographical realities in the service of religious symbolism.
In fact, for all the developments in cartography since the 13th century Mappa, the inclusion of intentional errors in maps is a practice that continues even today. The maps of the Ordnance Survey are dotted with tiny fabrications and inaccuracies, though piety doesn’t enter into the equation: the mistakes are there to catch out plagiarists. Supposedly, every page of the London A to Z includes a bogus street. Frank Jacobs calls these legendary “trap” streets “the Loch Ness of the A to Z” – he has never been able to locate one – and it’s an intoxicating thought, that even this most sensible and everyday of maps could have deliberate mistakes woven into it like a Persian rug.
Bottling the Smoke
If maps are the ultimate expression of the human drive to rational order, it follows that they are most desperately needed in that embodiment of the human tendency to chaos: the city. More than any other environment, the sprawling metropolis must be refracted through the cartographer’s prism before we can begin to comprehend it. As Peter Ackroyd puts it in London: The Biography (2000), “the mapping of London represents an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to mitigate it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable.” The iconic Tube map, originally designed by Harry Beck in 1933, represents one of the most succesful efforts to tame the wildness, smoothing out the miles of tunnels to produce a stylised representation that is topologically correct (the lines intersect at the correct points) but topographically wildly inaccurate. Taken a step further, the rational urge to disentangle the urban maze produced Christopher Wren’s 1666 plan for London after the Great Fire. Wren’s vision of straight, wide streets and neat piazzas was as unthinkable to Londoners then as it is now: this beautiful but over-optimistic map was as far as he got.
Simon Foxell in Mapping London: Making Sense of the City (2007) compares the mapmaker to a sculptor who “must chip away at the raw block of material that is the city to reveal the shape and representation hidden inside.” The resulting artefact will inevitably be shaped by its maker’s purpose and priorities. Take for instance John Snow’s 1855 map of cholera cases in Bow, which led to the discovery that cholera was water-borne. Or the National Temperance League’s ‘Modern Plague of London' map (c.1886) which marked the city’s pubs as pox-like red dots. Or the 'Circuiteer' (c.1847), overlaid with one-mile diameter circles to enable the user to calculate cab fares and avoid being swindled.
The recent success of Secret London – originally a Facebook group which spawned hundreds of imitators, and now a website – attests to the continuing desire of Londoners to “know the unknowable”. The site (still, at the time of writing, a work in progress) allows users to share their recommendations for the city’s lesser-known haunts, and to plot these on a collaborative and idiosyncratic map using Google Maps and its Local Search API. ”It’s about reawakening your experience of the city,” the site’s founder Tiffany Philippou told me. “It’s about people talking amongst themselves and sharing their different experiences, from their favourite park bench to the best places to look for graffiti – everything is in one place, and easy to find.”
The “Secret” part of the name may have contributed to the group’s initial appeal, but it is slightly misleading: there is nothing particularly clandestine or underground about the website. Rather, it taps into a desire, as old as the first London maps, for a comprehensive, user-friendly document of the city. The difference here is that the availability of Google’s mapping technology renders such an ambition far more achievable. The sheer scope and detail of Google Maps and Google Earth is astonishing, but Google may even be outdone by Microsoft’s Bing, whose augmented-reality maps were recently unveiled by developer Blaise Aguera y Arcas. Breathtaking as these are, they raise problematic questions of privacy. It has never been easier to orientate yourself in the world, but by the same token it has never been harder to hide.
A to B, not A to Z
Cartographer Denis Wood has estimated that 99.9% of all maps ever made were made in the 21st century. Surrounded as we are by cartography on every website and smartphone, it’s easy to forget how unnatural such a God’s-eye view is, and what a fiendish business mapmaking must have been before aviation or satellites. Browsing through the antique maps in the basement of Stanfords travel bookshop, you will come across maps charting the road from, say, London to Land’s End (this 1675 example is by the acknowledged master John Ogilby).
Laid out in scroll-like sections, ignoring all but the road and key waypoints or landmarks, these linear itineraries are reminiscent of an ancient oral tradition in which all that mattered was that you walked for ten miles until you came to a church with a spire, then took the right fork and proceeded for fifteen miles, and so on. In a sense, the GPS tom-tom systems that now come as standard in cars are navigating us back towards this tradition: 21st century drivers can progress from origin to destination without picking up much sense of the surrounding area and its topography.
The “songlines” of traditional Aboriginal Australian culture worked on a similar basis, allowing nomadic peoples to navigate across vast distances by reciting equally vast song sequences containing topographical pointers. “A song,” as Bruce Chatwin puts it in his 1987 bestseller The Songlines, “was both map and direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country.” It’s hard not to be seduced by the idea of music doubling as a map – a notion that evidently appeals to Tom Waits, who likes to cover the walls of the recording studio with maps, and whose song ‘Don’t Go Into That Barn’ (from 2004’s Real Gone) accurately describes the progress of a slave boat down the Mississippi:
Dover down to Covington
Covington to Louisville
Louisville to Henderson
Henderson to Smithland
Smithland to Memphis
Memphis down to Vicksburg
Vicksburg to Natchez…
If a musical score – significantly called a “chart” in musicians’ parlance – provides a visual, spatial representation of sound (an idea explored literally in James Plakovic’s World Beat Music), these musical maps do the reverse, rendering spatial relationships as time-bound, linear narrative.
X marks the spot
Primarily, though, the geography embedded in the Waits song, or in the songs of the Pogues, adds colour and connects them to a folk tradition of storytelling. Folk music, born of local communities and propagated by travel, is naturally fixated on place and landscape; it’s no coincidence that the folk music of the American South is called “country”.
Of course, music isn’t the only art to employ geography in the service of imaginative richness or naturalistic heft: the history of English prose fiction has long been intertwined with our passion for maps. Defoe’s sequels to Robinson Crusoe (1719-20) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) were not only influenced by nonfiction travel narratives; they were also accompanied, from their earliest editions, by illustrations mapping Crusoe and Gulliver’s journeys to far-flung and fantastical landscapes. Plenty of novelists have followed this early lead by incorporating maps to the point where they are an integral, inseparable part of the work.
The standout examples of this “peculiarly British habit” (as Mike Parker calls it in Map Addict) must be the maps of Middle-Earth produced by J.R.R. Tolkien and son, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s map for Treasure Island (1883). In Stevenson’s case, intriguingly, the map actually came before the novel – born of an escapist impulse on a wet Scottish holiday. As his stepson later recalled:
busy with a box of paints I happened to be tinting a map of an island I had drawn. Stevenson came in as I was finishing it, and with his affectionate interest in everything I was doing, leaned over my shoulder, and was soon elaborating the map and naming it. I shall never forget the thrill of Skeleton Island, Spyglass Hill, nor the heart-stirring climax of the three red crosses! And the greater climax still when he wrote down the words “Treasure Island” at the top right-hand corner! And he seemed to know so much about it too – the pirates, the buried treasure, the man who had been marooned on the island… “Oh, for a story about it”, I exclaimed, in a heaven of enchantment…
The map begat the story, which begat scores of imitators borrowing the “X marks the spot” trope, which between them begat countless boys with map fixations who drove their parents mad by digging up the garden. Myself included.
If, by the advent of modernism, the endpaper map had largely been consigned to fantasy and children’s literature, the novel had not lost its geographical fixation. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) are modernist examples of what would now be called “psychogeography”: the contours of consciousness overlaid on those of the city. (Vladimir Nabokov insisted that when teaching Ulysses, “instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.”) And there is a striking correspondence between Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, whose original 1951 draft was notoriously typed on a single continuous scroll of paper, and John Ogilby’s “A to B” road map shown above.
If these novels are in some sense aspiring to the condition of maps, they are the inverse of the maps produced by eccentric American cartographer Denis Wood. Interviewed by Ira Glass for This American Life, Wood described his ongoing efforts to achieve “a poetics of cartography” through the mapping of his neighbourhood of Boylan Heights in Raleigh, North Carolina. Each of Wood’s maps is concerned with one specific variable, from the network of overhead power lines, to the pools of light cast by the street lamps, to the Halloween pumpkins on the neighbours’ porches. The aim of this quixotic, consciously futile project is to document every sensory detail of the place where he lives, constructing an atlas that amounts to an attempt to – as Glass put it – “write a novel with pure symbols.”
A map of Nowhere
In truth, the relationship between maps and prose writing goes back before the origins of the novel as we know it. Thomas More’s Utopia, printed in 1516, carried this illustration of its ideal island (colours added later):
The island’s skull shape is a reminder of the link made by maps between physical landscapes and the landscapes of consciousness and the imagination. The castle occupies pride of place in the middle of the brain - just about where Jerusalem sits on medieval world maps.
"Utopia" comes from the Greek for "nowhere", so this map poses something of a paradox: surely the defining feature of most maps is that they depict somewhere? But the desire to map Utopia (in whatever form it takes for the mapmaker) constitutes a powerful strand of cartography in itself, from fantasy fiction to futuristic architects’ plans.
As Oscar Wilde put it, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at”. There is something wonderfully hopeful in the act of representing a wished-for world on a map: as if the mapmaker’s instruments could simply conjure it into being. Such plans of Utopia represent a buttress against the chaos of the world, a strategy for taking control that combines both rationality and imagination. In this they resemble maps of all shapes and sizes, and from all shades and scales of “reality”.
Like maps themselves, any representation of the world of cartography must be highly selective.In plotting my personal journey through this huge subject I have revealed my own bias: towards London and the arts in general; towards Tom Waits, Vladimir Nabokov and The West Wing in particular. Many thanks to Frank Jacobs for his help, and to the other industrious blogging types who have made the Web a map-hunter’s dream.