Loving that letterbox

BY BILL NASSON

In 1967, an American pop and soul band called The Box Tops had a huge hit witha catchy song, “My Baby Wrote Me A Letter”, in which those blue-eyed Memphis boys knew that it would mean, “lonely days are gone”. Three years later saw the publication of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, a book (and later a play and a film) which documented an actual twenty-year airmail correspondence between a New York bibliophile and an English second-hand bookseller in London. Extraordinarily touching, it is a gentle portrait of a subtle love affair between two people who never ever met. Yet, they nonetheless found themselves bound together by a mutual love of books and of reading, and by a compulsive need to immerse themselves in what Simon Garfield describes as “a lost world” – one of love and affection crafted and sustained by the constant exchange of revealing letters. For it is on those acutely personal pages, as the author suggests at the end of his enthralling new book, that “we recognise ourselves”.

It is no surprise to find 84 Charing Cross Road cited among this book’s dazzling spread of literary and historical references. The lesson of Simon Garfield’s To The Letter: A Journey Through a Vanishing World is that if a price of progress is the accelerating decline and abandonment of real letters, it will be “an immeasurable defeat” of one of the most grand and ancient traditions of human connection. Anyone who reads this poignant and nostalgic journey through the emotional storehouse of the old-fashioned personal mail will surely find it hard not to succumb to its powerful message. Granted, a current digitalised world of online chat and webcams may be quick and convenient. Who would want to hang on to what has become mocked as snail-mail?

Garfield recognises this, assuring the reader at the start that his is not an anti-email rant, even less an anti-progress book. What, after all, would be the point of that? Instead, steeped in a mixture of nostalgia and longing, the author’s latest book is a witty kind of praise-poem to the tingling possibilities of the post or the constantly-renewable romance of the mail. Does anyone, the author asks rhetorically, ever glow at the prospect of opening an email folder? By the nature of their medium, emails poke at you mechanically, whereas letters are an enveloping caress, even those which sting. Moreover, the hoardings of shoeboxeswill stick around unlike inboxes, their written letters intrinsic proof of our emotional existence. If forgotten, they are forgotten only to be newly-discovered or to be found after we have gone, not only by our descendants but also, perhaps, by curious historians. After all, what else but a letter can conjure up a world and reveal an individual’s place within it so plainly and expressively?

In other words, whatever the enchantments of a pixellated human condition, it is still surely not a patch on “a larger life” that has been lost, that of running to catch the last post, the design richness of stamps, the pen, the feathery feel of airmail notepaper, the happy imaginative sound of a thank-you note (a soft and appreciative burp), the finality of sealing the manila envelope. If anything, letter-writing amounts to even more. For, as the author’s celebration of postal correspondence emphasises, it is about the value that is placed on literacy and the gradual composition of thought. Moreover, in Simon Garfield’s own words, what raises letter-writing far above other kinds of written communication is its mental and physical enactment. There, in a quiet and intense theatre of the self, we fold ourselves into “a slower cerebral whirring, the use of the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers”.

In To The Letter this author (who has also penned Just My Type and On the Map, amongst others) is again on cracking form. Quirky, ironic, amusing and always wearing his learning lightly, Simon Garfield’s tone is inviting. Joining him as a fellow-traveller, the reader is taken on an enthralling trip. Part history, part eccentricity, part linguistic and part philosophical reflection, it is an excursion to the far and varied outposts of the magical empire of individual or personalised letters. Starting with the papyrus era of the Romans, the world’s first real letter-writers, it ends in the present, with extinction in sight. The last delivered letter may well appear in our lifetime, like the last hair to turn white or the last dance by Jacob Zuma in those leopard-skin accessories.

The self-regarding cuteness of MoreLoveLetters.com, we need hardly be told, is a pretty poor substitute for the edgy Virginia Woolf enchanting Clive Bell in 1909. Along the way, we are treated, among much else, to delicious digressions on a vast gallery of Garfield’s pet pen-pushing characters, from Henry VIII to John Keats to Jack Kerouac. The constant sense that their letters are their lives is what gives this exuberant book its lingering fascination. Its author ends with a letter to a friend from the 19th Century New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield: “This is not a letter but my arms around you for a brief moment.” Is there anything more to be said?

To the Letter is published by Canongate and is available from Kalahari.com.

Bill Nasson is Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book, co-edited with Albert Grundlingh, is The War Comes Home: Women and Families in the Anglo-Boer War published in 2013 by Tafelberg.

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.

EXTRACT: On the Map by Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield

And the other is a map of equatorial Africa, the region once known as Congo Free State, which shows Stanley basically doing the same thing. Stanley’s magnificent achievements as an explorer – not only the successful location of Livingstone, but the confirmation of Lake Victoria as the source of the White Nile – have been undermined by his participation in what may be the worst humanitarian disaster ever conceived by colonial hubris and greed.

Encouraged by Stanley’s heroics along the River Congo between 1874 and 1877, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, coopted him to take part in a rather less ‘scientific’ venture. Leopold had seen the blank maps and wanted a piece for himself. In a period that saw Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Portugal carve up the continent in a wild imperial looting expedition, the conquest of land through a mixture of industrial ambition and religious divination might have seemed merely like the natural order of things. Leopold made his intentions clear at a geographical conference in Brussels in 1876, proposing the establishment of an international committee with the purpose of increasing the ‘civilisation’ of Congo natives ‘by means of scientific exploration, legal trade and war against the “Arabic” slave traders.’

He claimed a higher goal: ‘To open to civilisation the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.’ But his ideas of progress and scientific methods were cruelly unconventional, involving as they did brutal enslavement, a military dictatorship and the ruthless control over the ivory and rubber trade, an ambition only made possible initially with Stanley as his entirely respectable agent, buying up vast areas for Belgian control with sweet-talk and trinkets. To what extent Stanley knew of Leopold’s intended subterfuge has long been the subject of debate, but the king reportedly informed him, ‘It is a question of creating a new state, as big as possible, and of running it. It is clearly understood that in this project there is no question of granting the slightest political power to the Negroes. That would be absurd.’

Leopold (and Stanley’s) conquest of the Congo was one of the prime motivations behind Otto von Bismarck’s Berlin Conference of 1884-5, an attempt to divide the rightful ownership of this recently blank continent. (In Heart of Darkness, Bismarck’s Berlin Conference becomes a parody: the ‘International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs’.) The subsequent map looks colourful and ordered enough, and suddenly full again. But the new appearance of King Leopold’s massive Congo Free State heralds one of the truly dark periods of colonial rule. And the bright new partitions on the rest of the map at the start of the twentieth century – French Algeria, Portuguese Angola, Italian Libya, German Cameroon and British South Africa – show only the ability of maps to conceal what’s really there, and to mask the misery to come.

A quarter of a century after Conrad’s Heart of Darkness first appeared, and in the year of the author’s death, a private press published the author’s own thoughts about the lightness and darkness of maps. Like Charlie Marlow, Conrad was a map fan. He had to be: he had led such a peripatetic life on land and sea that they were the only way he could find his bearings. In Geography and Some Explorers he wrote of how ‘map-gazing, to which I became addicted so early, brings the problems of the great spaces of the earth into stimulating and direct contact with a sane curiosity and gives an honest precision to one’s imaginative faculty.’ He was aware he was living through a revolution in which ‘the honest maps of the nineteenth century nourished in me a passionate interest in the truth of geographical facts and a desire for the precise knowledge which was extended to other subjects. For a change had come over the spirit of cartographers. From the middle of the eighteenth century on, the business of map-making had been growing into an honest occupation, registering the hard-won knowledge, but also in a scientific spirit, recording the geographical ignorance of its time. And it was Africa, the continent of which the Romans used to say “some new thing was always coming,” that got cleared of the dull, imaginary wonders of the dark ages, which were replaced by exciting spaces of white paper.’

What really excited him about maps, he realised, was a simple thing: ‘Regions unknown!’ Not defined certainty, but the opposite – the mystery, and the life-enhancing possibility of discovery.

Extracted from On the Map by Simon Garfield, published by Profile Books, R349. The book has been selected as one of AERODROME’s WinterReads.

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.