Sunday, June 1, 2014

Calling All Cartophiles

I have to admit to having a bit of a thing for maps and charts; I find them utterly fascinating and can lose myself in them in just the same way that I can stare for hours at a fire or the ocean, and I don't think that I'm alone in this.  

Close your eyes, stick a pin in, and make a plan to go there.

Maps have been with us for thousands of years, allowing us to locate ourselves and place ourselves egotistically at the centre of our own personal universe, however big or small.  They allow us to travel without moving anything more than our eyes, faster than the speed of light, shrinking geography to a manageable scale and making every single one of us an explorer.  

Maps and charts transcend languages and, I would imagine, predate human speech - how else do you think homo sapiens who'd not yet figured out how to organise their grunts into primitive language were able to direct each other to food sources and co-ordinate hunts?  I'd like to think that they grabbed a stick and used it to draw directions in the dirt - the original mud map.  At some point our artistic interpretations of the landscape around us took to the skies and showed our world as the gods saw it.  We looked up to map the constellations, and we did our best to look down, taking an educated guess at what lay over the unknown horizon and beneath the sea.  Where there were blank spaces yet to be explored, cartographers used their imaginations and either made something up or drew a monster.

Both my grandfather and my great-grandfather on my mother's side worked at the Ordnance Survey. Somewhere there is a wonderful photograph of my grandfather in North Africa during WWII surveying as part of his role as a map maker for the Royal Engineers.  Perhaps my appreciation of cartography is partly down to genetic memory?

Maps take many forms and information can be presented in many different ways, the most obvious being the two flavours that world maps come in: political or geographical, one being subject to the short term nature of humanity and the lines that we draw in the sand and the other showing what is physically present but only in a narrowly defined scientific category such as vegetation or elevation.  No map can show everything and therefore no map is perfect, and in fact most of the information that we are shown is presented over a flawed template because it is so difficult to present the surface of a sphere undistorted on a flat surface.  Gerardus Mercator produced the best attempt to date in 1569 and that still forms the basis for our view of a flat world map 445 years later, but there's no getting around the fact that Greenland just isn't that big.  If a map is conveying information where location is one of the key considerations, then how it is presented is down to the cartographer.  When Harry Beck sat down at his drafting table in 1931 to produce a new map of the London Underground he took inspiration from an electronic circuit board and spaced each station more or less equally, showing how stations related to each other across the entire network rather than laying them out geographically.  It's an iconic design that has been printed more than any other map in history and is absolutely fit for purpose, but you couldn't use it to navigate yourself overland from Hammersmith to Upminster very easily.  All the same, I don't understand why I've never seen anybody waiting for the tube with Harry's famous coloured lines tattooed on their forearm.  
Other maps show such information as GDP per capita, weather patterns, military spending by country, place names sized in relation to population and how many people are currently online.  The list of what we can convey using a map goes on and on, and there are many different ways in which we can do it.

I have no idea how I manage to get any work done with this lot stuck up in front of my face above my desk.  W.Graham Arader III (the most famous, wealthy and contentious map collector/dealer in the world) probably doesn't have anything to worry about, but I am pretty fond of some of my maps and charts and the day dreams that they trigger.  Current favourites include the "Anti-Piracy Planning Chart" and "Time Zones of Antarctica" map.  

I recently picked up a second hand book called "The War Atlas", a volume of "carto-journalism" produced as part of a series illustrating inequality by a socialist publishing house.  The spread shown above shows the post Cold-War distribution of nuclear weapons (c.1982) looking down on the North Pole.  It is equal parts fascinating and terrifying.

Maps do an awful lot of things and one of the things that they do incredibly well is arouse curiosity where they are meant to sate it.  They tell us enough about a place to pique our interest but never transport us there physically.  They are the ultimate cause of itchy feet, and for that I love them.

My oldest friend gave me this beautiful three dimensional relief nautical chart for my birthday last year.  He said that he'd tried to find one for somewhere that I'd visited on a surf trip but then, as my birthday drew near, he panicked and "just bought the coolest looking one that they had" and in doing so inadvertently added another destination to my "must visit" list.

Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands is one of those books that I dearly wished I had written.  I think that I would probably have written a slightly different subtitle if I had been the author though:  
"Fifty Islands I have not visited but intend to".

 The stuff that dreams are made of/dual purpose bedside lighting and inspiration.

 If you want to see an incredible collection of maps then check out "40 maps that will help you make sense of the world" over on Twisted Sifter.  They are incredible and many of them are very thought provoking.  

And, if you're looking for some bedtime reading in old-fashioned paper and ink form then "On The Map" by Simon Garfield will tell you everything you ever thought you wanted to know and then some about cartography in it's many guises.  That, and an Atlas.


  1. Maps by Yeah Yeah Yeahs would be the perfect soundtrack mate, get it embedded in the blog! An emotional song for an emotional topic!

  2. Very good words! Also, the amazing Aborigines of Oz sing their maps, or 'songlines' from memory. Incredible people, worthy of further research.