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).

In the introduction to his atlas, Blaeu wrote of the joy of being able to “set eyes on far-off places without so much as leaving home”. For Garfield, one great pleasure of looking at a map is finding “the You Are Here spot”. On a globe or a world map we Irish tend to look for the teddy-bear shape of our island, with its protective (or invasive) larger land mass to the east. And although Ireland doesn’t figure much in this history – until the Ordnance Survey of the 19th century, which mapped the whole country at 6in to the mile – the plump bear and his thinner predecessors have been a clear presence on maps since the time of Ptolemy, in the second century.

A reservation about this fascinating book is that though it is profusely illustrated there is no colour, so the visual delights of the older maps are muted. A more basic point: the author does not explain how in fact a map was made. There is mention of triangulation, the 16th-century practice that made the Carte de France possible (and, later, Roy’s Ordnance Survey), but we are not told exactly what is involved: how the surveyor on the ground, with theodolite and chains, translated his measurements to the finished folding sheet.

On the chauvinist, You Are Here side, Irish readers may be surprised at the omission of Tim Robinson, mapper of Aran, the Burren and Connemara, one of the last great presatellite mapmakers, whose working method has consisted of walking the ground and talking to the people he meets.

More recently, a company called EastWest Mapping has produced fine paper maps for those who walk in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. They are not mentioned here either. But Garfield does reckon that the paper map – cheaper, better, more perspective – has not surrendered to the electronic gadget, and he wonders about “the map-less clowns who yomp up Ben Nevis at teatime with a fading single bar on their iPhones”.

Robert Louis Stevenson said: “I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe.” On the Map is for people who share that disbelief, whether they are, like Stevenson, off to the South Seas or content merely to stay at home and dream of Treasure Island.

John S Doyle is a journalist and broadcaster. His archive series on the four seasons for RTÉ Lyric FM, now available on the station’s website, starts with Autumn: Golden Fields

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