The Flawed Cartographer

Sometime after the first Gulf War, I heard on the news that 63% of young Americans could not identify Iraq on a map of the world. I could tell by the way that the presenter spoke that this was something bad: more evidence that Americans were silly. I spent a moment thinking where Iraq was. My mind was blank. This worried me. I didn’t want to be sneered at by newsreaders so I tested myself by drawing a map of the world.

The UK and Ireland started off pretty well. Australia, way over on the far edge of the paper, was also good. But beyond that, things started to get a little amorphous.  I knew what individual countries like Spain and Italy looked like, but the shape of the European landmass, from which they dangled, was less clear.

Just as thinking too much about words can cause them to disintegrate into abstract plosives and fricatives untethered to any meaning, I suspected that my mental image of the globe was falling apart under the scrutiny of my attention. I was sure that as a reasonably educated adult with an A in my Geography ‘O’ level, a representation of the world was burnt on my brain somewhere, even if only at a subconscious level.  As I continued to draw, I let instinct take over.

The result was quite alarming. When I showed my map to my partner he thought it was a joke and referred to it as a Mappa Mundi, though I now realize that did a great disservice to those plucky medieval efforts. Most countries remained unidentified and unnamed and the continental landmasses were hideously contorted. Africa in particular was withered down to a sorry sock, looping under Italy to meet up with Spain. The ghost of Adolf Hitler would have been delighted to see that Germany spread over most of central Europe, expanding to fill any areas of uncertainty like a Teutonic airbag. I couldn’t pinpoint close European neighbours, much less anything further a field. The single worst error was Poland. It costs me a great deal to admit that I had somehow been led to believe by its name that Poland was very near the North Pole.

That was over a decade ago. In the intervening years I’ve worked hard to improve my knowledge of geography. I’ve travelled a fair bit. I have an enormous world map on the wall in my house which I stare at in the hope it will stick to my brain. Every now and again I have another go at drawing the world. It’s better now, but still I fear capable of provoking a newsreader’s smirk. Obviously I don’t like to think that my ignorance is born of insularity and cultural arrogance – it seems to apply as much to countries I’ve visited as countries I haven’t; as much to those places whose cultures I take in as to those I’m indifferent to.

One of the consequences of my attempts at cartography has been to make me view all maps with some suspicion. Having seen how subjective and idiosyncratic our world view can be (ok, my world view in particular) I’m wiser to the choices made by map makers. Wounded by the derision that my original map invited I tend now to question the authority of others and to peevishly criticise their efforts.

I like to focus my scorn not on the obviously controversial choice of projection, but rather on more subtle questions of representation. I notice for example how cartographers deliberately use soothing tones to attempt to disguise the intensely contentious and political nature of their work. The colour palette used by world maps evokes that same simple universe glimpsed in old Ladybird books. What disorder can there be in a world with countries of Germolene pink, Caramac tan and Parma-Violet mauve? Perhaps we might become distracted by the faded drabs and daydream about a new world order based on alliances between countries of the same colour. On my map that would create a union between the UK, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Spain pitched against the US, France, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Australia. Perhaps we might believe that colours never bleed across borders.

Ordnance Survey maps are no better, they too have their own dark agenda. In their case to propagate an idealised vision of the UK as Trumpton.  A land of town halls, churches and post offices, the choice of landmarks as reassuring as it is arbitrary. A more accurate reflection might replace post offices with fried misery-chicken outlets, town halls with all-you-can-eat buffets, and the delicate pointillist rendering of scree with the abstract impressionist daubs of fly tip sites. Perhaps my map placed Cuba on the wrong side of America, but at least I didn’t pretend Chippy Minton was still on-call.

I sneer also at the two dimensionality of maps. The missing third dimension of depth is less debilitating than the missing fourth of time. I grew up and continue to live in Birmingham, a city where a marked lack of sentimentality for the past and a relentless programme of redevelopment means that landmarks can disappear overnight, road systems mutate daily. This is not a city that can be described by an A-Z. Here the successful urban navigator needs an innate sense of direction that can function without the crutches of building or streets. Like a Navajo tracker you learn to pick up on other less ephemeral, more lasting signs: the silhouette of a certain tree, the paths of rivers and canals, the congregation of drunks on a favoured bench.

But though I work hard at it I can’t really believe in my own contempt. Despite their flaws and my own bitter desire to find fault, I have to concede that there is ultimately something brave and admirable about a map, something that will always elevate them above the narrow alternatives. Online route-finders and sat-nav systems offer strangely tunnelled perspectives on the world, revealing information only on a need to know basis, concealing more than they show. Maps lay their naked visions of the world out for all to see, providing not one route but many and revealing above all a glimpse of the flawed cartographers behind them.

First published Granta 103, Autumn 2008