On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way It Does
By Simon Garfield, Profile Books, 464pp. £16.99
CARTOGRAPHY:WE ARE WHERE we are. That most annoying of trite phrases, with its hint of Zen wisdom, was often used by commentators to provide a retrospective clean slate on which to place the hideous economic mess this country has been led into.
It was a geographic metaphor, possibly even a cartographic one. Certainly we still are where we are – where else would we be? But a good map will also help us find where we were, so that we can decide whether we would start from there again. And it will show us where we are going from here.
That is Simon Garfield’s point of departure. His book is for people who like maps: the green fields of home, the purple mountains of faraway countries, the deep blue seas. It is a history of mapping, from the Library of Alexandria to Google Earth and, better still, OpenStreetMap, assembled by volunteers tracking their own areas.
“Maps began as a challenge of the imagination,” says Garfield. The imaginations exercised were initially those of scholars, navigators and traders. A theological view of the world was conveyed by Hereford’s magnificent Mappa Mundi, which was strong on the rewards of virtue but, though published in 1290, hazy on the geography.
Conspicuous consumption was a later aspect, as was political power. Gen William Roy’s survey of Britain in the 18th century not only mapped the entire country, as Garfield points out, but also “reshaped British understanding and appreciation of its landscape, its property boundaries, its urban and rural planning, engineering, archaeology, district and tax laws”. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, each of us with a smartphone is at the centre of our own atlas, notionally our own boss but spied on from all sides.
Garfield has eclectic tastes, and is as interested in the king of the Belgians as he is in Jennifer Aniston; in the mapping of disease in Victorian London as in exploring the canals of Mars. And he hops around the world, ancient and modern, with glee, dispensing information, both learned and chatty. On the Map is informative and entertaining, and good fun.
We learn, among many other things, that the Murray Handbooks for Travellers – first published in 1836, the English forerunner of the German Baedekers – made independent travel possible for women; that Nabokov drew a map of Dublin to work out for himself the movements of Leopold Bloom through the city; that we have been mispronouncing the name Mount Everest all these years, named as it is after the surveyor general of India, who pronounced it Eev-rest; and that if the Vinland map, so-called after the Viking name for North America, is not the forgery it was once thought to be, then Europeans must have arrived in America 500 years before Columbus.
In 1659, Joan Blaeu – Dutch, as were so many leading cartographers, from Mercator to the inventor of the TomTom satnav – produced the Atlas Maior, “quite simply the most beautiful, elaborate, expensive, [heavy] and stunning work of cartography the world had ever seen”. It contained almost 600 maps, and the coloured edition cost 460 guilder – a sum, we are told, with which you could buy 10 slaves, and still have change to buy the island of Manhattan from the native Americans (60 guilder in 1626).