Thursday, 12 November 2015

In Praise of Maps


Sometimes when I leave the house I forget to take a notebook with me. So if something strikes me and I want to write it down, I have to hunt for something to write on. In extreme cases I have been known to write on my kindle & send it to myself as an email, but I don't often have it with me. So I scribble things down on the back of bus tickets. These jottings are shorthand, and though they make perfect sense at the time, I cannot always work out what I was trying to express, when I look at them later. It can also be difficult to read my own writing, especially if I'm writing on the bus, which jolts and bumps. But I have managed to decipher recent notes, which are to do with maps, location, and finding your way around.

A few days ago, someone gave me a lift in their car. I don't often get chauffered around, and I sat back to enjoy it. This friend does not live near here, and did not know the area well. Besides, he enjoys using the sat-nav. I knew the way, or thought I did, though it has been many years since I drove along this particular road, in the days when I had a car. So I convinced him that I would be able to give him directions. But just to be sure, he switched the sat-nav on, (though with the sound turned down), and it displayed our position on a road, and where the next turnoff would be. I'm pleased to say that my memory did not fail me. And we were helped by the fact that our destination was clearly signposted.

We drove along small back roads in the autumn sunshine. The roads were lined with trees, mainly beech trees, all tremendous shades of yellow and burnt gold. I thought about maps and knowing where you are located on a map, and where you are heading on a map and how this transfers to an inner map or so it seems to me. And if you know a place well enough, you can then navigate a terrain, whether rural or urban, without recourse to any outer map at all. For some reason, this kind of knowledge, built up through experience, seems important to me. To really know somewhere, so that it becomes a part of you.

Of course, there is always the excitement of exploring new places, the thrill of discovery, of simply just being in a place you've never been in before. Yes, there's that too. But perhaps they are intimately related. Without knowing a place, how can you have that thrill of discovery? Without knowing what familiar is, how can you feel that leap of joy that comes from the unfamiliar? Although I'm not blind to the usefulness of a sat nav in unfamiliar places, we all managed to find our way from A to B before they were invented. Through a combination of map reading, sign reading, and accosting strangers to help us.


Map of Iran

For me, to look at a map is to fire the imagination. It's not the place itself, but it is full of the anticipation of journey, which is as much part of it as all the feelings that are linked to it, a mixture of desire, hope, delight and quivering fear. I think there is another feeling too and I'm trying to pin-point it. It is excitement mixed with anxiety, mixed more with bravado, it has a fierceness at the same time as a vulnerability. It is a determination that is full of holes, and at the same time this perforated intent fits next to the skin, is flexible as water and it weighs nothing, is the opposite of weight, has the tremulous feeling of feathers in air-currents, a sense of uplift as if it can barely wait to take off.

Not to have a map would mean for me to be deprived of all that. And even more – if you look on a map you 'know where you are' because you transpose somehow the image in front of you onto your imagination or your inner eye or map. What's in front of you won't look anything like the lines and colours on the page, but somehow, having learned the language of maps, we can translate it. And though of course it operates on a different scale, the relationship of different features to each other – of hills (colours), rivers and towns –  is still maintained.



I remember when I was first in Albania, maps were difficult to obtain. And the curious thing was, that if we showed someone a map and asked directions to a certain place from where we were, people could not tell us as the map was clearly incomprehensible to them, like showing them something in a foreign language. We came to realise that maps had not been produced during the decades of communist rule, probably linked to the paranoia and denial of the regime, where free movement around the country was unthinkable. If you wanted to travel you had to apply for permission, which would not necessarily be granted. So why produce maps when most people were unlikely to have any use for them?  The result was that most people, after the collapse of communism, when faced with a piece of paper covered with lines and street names, were unable to make any sense of it. Deprived of so many things, these people were also deprived of that sense of inner location within their own country, never mind in the larger world.


On the other hand, they would of course have a very good knowledge of their local area, the streets of their own city, through the familiarity that comes from living there and walking around. This local knowledge was so profound, that many of the streets had no signs on them and their names were unknown. Initially this added to our confusion until we learned to give and follow directions using various reference points.  But this would not confuse the very few foreign visitors during the communist era, as they were always shepherded around by the official guides. Since they could not wander around freely, and local people were forbidden to speak to them anyway, there would be no need to ask for directions, so, no need for street names – or for maps. 

If you rely on a sat-nav, though mostly they work, you can still get lost, as they are not infallible. And all you have apart from the voice, is a small picture on a screen which gives you little orientation to your surroundings. And, I say to my friend who is driving me around, if you don't develop the practice of reading a map, how will you find your way to heaven?  He just laughs.

Celestial map from the 17th century, by the Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit.
"Planisphæri cœleste" by Frederik de Wit - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Scanned by Janke. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

The wikipedia page says these star maps "have been used for human navigation since time immemorial." I expect it means that they've been used for navigation on earth but I like to think that celestial navigation is via the imagination, using these pictures of the constellations.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Journey to the Somme

From Looking for Private Smith, written 2012-13

......Gare du Nord. I enquire about reservations for the trains to Albert. I don't need them, the trains are not TGV, they are regional, TER trains.  I take a train to Amiens, where I change for the train to Albert. As the morning gets lighter, the sky is bleakly grey. The trains pass through a landscape weighed upon by grey and heavy skies. But somewhere between Amiens and Albert, the sun comes out. When I come out of Albert station, it's windy, but the sun is bright in a clear sky.

....The flat countryside, the light sharp as lemon stung my eyes and it became blurred, all these green fields, stripped trees, with waving needles of dark branches, and the ploughed earth the colour of damp sand. As if the sea could not be far away, you know this because of the gentle gradient of fields, the colour and texture of the earth, the way sand looks just after the sea has left, and turned into horizon.

The light becomes piercing, flicked like metal over the fields, the grass, like light metallic plates bumping into each other, faint and irregular bells, throwing reflections, echoes, and this strange clutching feeling in me, as I walk through the rows of stones and there are several people there which I did not expect. I'd imagined such a silence, such an emptiness, a contemplation and stillness, not this clashing orchestra of wind and sharp light, and these people who it seemed, were going about some normal daily task, in the middle of this preternaturally wild and walled off place.

But I knew which area to go to, the plan of the cemetery was on the website and I'd studied it beforehand. And even though I enlisted the help of these other people because I could not ignore them and to one of them I told my story yet again and he set off to look as well and I was saying the letter G and the wind whipped at least half of the sounds I made out of my mouth, so no wonder the poor man did not understand. But I found Area 1 and row G and some way along the row there he was, or there was, rather, the stone engraved with his name, regiment and number and date of death and I shout out to the man, I've found him, I've found it, it's here, je l'ai trouvé, voilà, je l'ai trouvé..... 

I spoke to the man who had been helping me to find the stone. He said this is what he and the others did, this was their job, they were the gardeners, they cut the grass, trimmed and tended these plots of ground, removed the weeds.