Back in the summer of 1939, my grandmother graduated from teacher training college, fully intending to travel the world before she settled into her teaching career. On 3 September of the same year, Britain declared war on Germany and she was sent to Blackpool to supervise evacuees. She never did fulfil her dreams of travelling, only venturing outside of Europe once – in her old age – to visit family in Canada.
I have in my possession her atlas, which she acquired as a young woman in 1937, probably as a gift. I can imagine her poring over it, wondering, plotting, as I do now, but with only a series of maps for inspiration. As I turn the frail pages, I wonder if she could ever have guessed how far from home her grandchildren would roam – all over Africa, Asia, South America, and her great grandchildren even knowing no other home than Australia. Archaic place names jump out at me (Rhodesia, Tanganyika, French Indochina) and I contemplate what the world she was attempting to conjure up in her mind was actually like.
But I can find out. I can find out not only what that place is like today – what it looks like from all its different angles, its history, its language, its political situation and what is has to offer me, the tourist – but what it was like then. I have Google Earth, Google image search, Wikipedia and any number of other Internet resources at my disposal. I don’t need to gaze at an atlas and use my imagination and rudimentary knowledge of geography to conjure up an idea of what a place is like.
Even without Google, just consider Stanfords, the travel bookshop in London. Now it stocks all the travel guides and literature under the sun, but back in the 1800s when it was founded, it was solely a purveyor of maps. In through those doors trudged colonialists and explorers in search of the vital instruments they would need to plan and undertake their trips.
That atlas is one of few things I own that’s of great value to me, although I have no use for it as a practical tool in the same way my grandmother did.
Still, I’ve always had a thing for maps. My favourite kind of book has always been the variety where upon opening the front cover you discover, buried in the peritext, a map.
A map! A map that needs scouring and memorising and referring back to at later mentions of ancestry, or momentous manoeuvres between streets or realms or territories.
Anyone who learned to read in the nineties might understand what I mean when I say that I think Roger Red Hat is entirely to blame. One, Two, Three and Away: The Village With Three Corners built an inherent link in my mind between stories and maps. Following on from that came Milly Molly Mandy, Winnie the Pooh, Swallows and Amazons and Billy Bunter. Later still, maps drew me into the fantastical worlds carefully constructed by Tolkien and Philip Pullman.
I get teased in London for carrying an A- Z, but I’m still of the opinion that our overreliance on technology to locate and direct us at any given moment is a risky strategy. All you need is to reach the limit of your data allowance, or for Apple to bring out a really naff maps app that everyone hates, and you’ll suddenly find yourself very aware of how the picture of London you hold in your head is a jigsaw you never bothered to complete.
I hate not knowing the name of the street I’m on, which way is North, where I am in the context of the city, the country, the whole great massive globular terrestrial dollop that is Earth. I cope fine if being lost is part of the fun (no appointments, no DANGER), but from the age I was old enough to shout instructions from the back seat about how best to navigate the Périphérique, I’ve always relished the opportunity to play the human sat-nav.
The world holds fewer mysteries in the age of satellites and Google – undiscovered desert islands are mostly things of history and fiction – but there is something incredibly satisfying about being able to look at places you have been and those you haven’t, and put them in context.
Things I like to hold in my mind include: the latitudinal position of Svalbard; the proximity of Australia to Flores; the comparative sizes of the Lake District and the Canadian wilderness; the exact positioning and proportional share of the shoreline of all three countries surrounding Lake Victoria, the route of the Trans-Siberian railway; where Eyeore’s Gloomy Place is in relation to the Hundred Acre Wood. I could (but won’t) go on.
Just as my grandmother clearly treasured the escapism her atlas offered her, I always take solace in maps. When I read they feed my imagination, and when I travel they help me put myself in context, wherever I may be. I love a nature documentary and a Paul Theroux tome as much as the next travel fiend, but when all is said and done, there’s really nothing quite like a ruddy good map to spark a new plan of action in someone with exploration and adventure on their mind.