Life beyond satnav

BY BILL NASSON

Geography is becoming fashionable again. Last year, an earnest American writer named Robert D. Kaplan published The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. Deserving of a prize for the world’s least obscure book title, it is about how the nature of their physical geography has shaped the history of countries and places, and of how the consequences of being flat or mountainous, wet or dry, coastal or land-locked, will determine the fortunes of wherever it is we live now. If you are worried about whether your national fate is to prosper or to perish in the wars to come, check the map to see if you need to stock up on tinned soup.

But, for an educated, spirited and thoughtful account of maps and their stories, who needs a Washington messiah from something called the Center for a New American Security? Turn, rather, to the enthralling English writer, Simon Garfield — altogether more stylish, more witty, more whimsical and nice rather than threatening. He has already written with fluency and authority on a gloriously eclectic range of subjects, from the invention of synthetic coloured dyes to wrestling, to the stylish print world of fonts or type-faces. Now, in On the Map, Garfield excels at explaining the significance of maps in history, from the third century BC to a 2010 Facebook map of the world, manufactured to plot the digital universe created by its hundreds of millions of exhibitionist followers.

There is an inevitable element of randomness in the author’s choice of maps to be explored, those in modern travel guidebooks, for instance, or a bizarre seventeenth-century depiction of California as an island, a misconception which was still appearing on Japanese maps in the nineteenth-century. It had been manufactured in 1602 by a Spanish monk who may have had one bottle of brandy too many on a voyage along the west coast. Yet the arbitrary assortment of maps on display is one of this book’s great attractions, for it enables Garfield to ask questions of them that are of universal relevance. In other words, what applies to The Times Atlas of 1955 applies to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1881 Treasure Island map. What stories do maps tell viewers, and why? What stories are to be told of who made them, and of why they were made? When and why are they inventions or fabrications? How can a map come to be seen as an agent of making history? Do maps help us to understand history more easily, or are they simply making it all up?

Some part of a very general answer is provided by a small masterpiece of mapping on the front and rear inside cover of On the Map. This is the classic London Transport Tube map, superimposed on an outline of the world with the names of cities. In this ingenious picture of coloured lines, West Brompton on the District Line is replaced by Cairo, and Vauxhall on the Victoria Line becomes Delhi. Clearly, it is a clever way of depicting the grid of London’s underground railway. Equally, in some imaginative and intuitive ways, it is more than that. It reflects a sense of speed and movement, the fast pace at which things move around a dynamic contemporary world. It may also illuminate global integration, how countries and societies have become knitted together. Lastly, London is imprinted on the world, showing not only how it was once the capital of the modern world’s largest empire, but conjuring up its living legacy, the enormous spread and influence of English right around the globe.

In many ways this book is not merely an informative, detailed and consistently entertaining account of maps of every conceivable kind — even of American film stars’ houses in the head of a tour bus guide — but also of the frequently manipulative intentions and disastrous consequences which could ensue when the ambitious and the powerful got excited over cartography. The grimmest example of this was the dubious colonial map of equatorial Africa in the later nineteenth-century. As Garfield shows in Chapter 11, “The Legendary Mountains of Kong”, it had big blank spaces that King Leopold II of Belgium could not resist filling in with his version of a civilising lightness. Behind the illusion of a colourful and orderly map lay the deepening misery of Leopold’s Congo Free State, a place of wild looting of ivory and rubber and of the brutal enslavement of Congolese Africans. Without preaching, the author conveys the raw truth in writing which is rich in historical irony and is unsparing of human cruelty and stupidity.

Superbly-researched, copiously illustrated and written with panache, On the Map is an utterly engrossing read. We are, as Simon Garfield puts it, searching souls and satnav can only take us so far. For when we have a map in view, of any kind, from any time, it is still only then that we find ourselves touched by nothing other than history and an awareness of ourselves in it.

On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way it Does is published by Profile Books, R349, and is one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

BILL NASSON is Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch and most recently the author of the Jacana Pocket History, South Africa at War: 1939-1945.

GIVEAWAY: Win a copy of On the Map by Simon Garfield. To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including area code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close at the end of July.

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