I love maps. Always have. My first memory of one comes from a yonks ancient book called “Ant and Bee Go Shopping”, which I must have “read” when I was about four, a kind of antediluvian “Where’s Wally” with a mega-big cheery perspective map of a city centre where (you guessed it) Ant and his best friend Bee would indulge in some much-needed retail therapy. Great map: I remember poring over streets and buildings as I walked down them with my invisible insectoid friends.
But there was probably one earlier than that – a virtual map which lived at the top of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree, a kind of magical dial-a-destination to lots of mysterious and mad lands above the clouds. That was half a decade before I discovered Tolkien’s gorgeous maps in The Hobbit when I was 8 or 9, but by then there was already no looking back – I was a cartographic junkie.
What is it about maps that fascinates some of us so much? Sure there’s a romance about some maps – Merrie England, Ancient Rome, battles and explorations of yore. But I can get off on a route planner of Birmingham city centre, so I’m sure it’s more than just the romance. It must be… you’ve seen Birmingham city centre, right?
I think it’s because maps are stories. Let me rephrase that: a single map is by no means a single story; instead, a single map is a myriad of stories. Every place name, street corner, bridge, river, church, mysterious lane, quarry, or “ancient earthworks” is an empty potential space in our heads begging to be described – a kind of cartographical paint-by-numbers which our minds yearn to visualise, explain, visit. But not in isolation: when you look at a map, you don’t just look at a bunch of unconnected data – your eye wanders, lingers over some elements, moves questingly from one to another. And, as it does so, you begin to construct a narrative. Maybe it’s just a journey – you start at Arthur’s Howe, then your eye flits to Darkwood Chase, and quick as lightning you’re flying over the land between them like a flock of ravens, looking down on the winding lanes below you, wondering how to travel between the two. There’s a house, there, by the river – maybe a farmhouse? No! It’s a canal, not a river, and that must be the lock-keeper’s cottage by the weir, a vision of dray horses pulling a barge laden with coal and a blacksmith’s by the riverside breathing smoke like a plume into the chill hazy air on a winter’s morning…
Then you blink, and look up. Nothing around you has changed – before you there’s still the wide white expanse of paper covered with cartographical sigils. And yet it’s like you’ve travelled, been on a journey. The map is like a distillation of a world, there beneath your fingers, beckoning you in. It’s like the biggest “choose-your-own-adventure” book you can imagine, one of infinite possibility, infinite stories.
If I could only take one book to a desert island, it would be an atlas.