A Life in Maps
I had my one really big idea at the age of fifteen. I carried it through the rest of my teens, hinting at its importance during job and university interviews. Like an old Western card shark, I only revealed enough of my hand to show there was substance to my thinking. I tried all the more creatively receptive colleges but no one wanted to know. Or maybe they were shielding their cards, too.
Eventually I was approached by a man in a bar - oh, high melodrama! - and "advised" to apply to join an obscure branch of the British civil service. "At last!" I breathed, expecting rapid recognition and fast track promotion.
In truth, my appointment was to a dingy little side office at The Department of Map Verification. I had only infrequent pen pushing assignments to keep my mind from wandering but I told myself that here was the place to make my mark. I would sit on my groundbreaking proposition for the moment, make a few contacts and reveal my theory in the fullness of time.
I read a book about the cave paintings at Lascaux and felt so angry at the author's misrepresentations that I felt compelled to put the record straight once and for all. Received wisdom is that these are figurative stories, possibly myths and folk tales, or more probably pure pictorial reportage. Received wisdom is bunk! Such paintings are clearly Man's first attempts at maps: "The mammoths and bison are over that way. This is where we live... Here there be tigers. Sabre-toothed ones."
Geography, and more particularly cartography, is prime among the humanities. The defining moment arrived when some arrogant cave dweller walked out across the savannah or the frozen tundra and indicated to all and sundry, "This here is my territory." The map - the representation of and definition of an owned and known place - predates all human history. What else have we fought for all these years?
I met and ensnared my wife Mary through my geographical skills. She was a typist in an insurance company: quiet, pretty, and unlikely to talk to strange young men on her way to and from work. To gain her attention - and later affection - I had to render myself familiar. I was on study leave from a low-level college course at the time and thus able to observe her regular passage, noting her route and daily routine with the finest detail. It was easy to contrive that our paths should cross with ever increasing frequency. That was only the start of the campaign, of course, but the moral of the story is: the army with the superior maps wins the virgin territory.
I read widely in my younger days: other worldly adventures such as the Narnia and Lord of the Rings series. I photocopied and enlarged the frontispiece maps, keeping cartographic track of the characters' progress as I turned the pages. There was never enough detail so I took to adding, or often making, my own. Later, I had a couple of these efforts printed in the sixth form magazine. I hoped such fame might find me favour with the girls but typically it had the opposite effect. These days my younger self would be pejoratively described as an "anorak" or "geek".
Eventually, I grew disenchanted with literature. The basic premise of most texts - the mystery, the conflict, whatever - seemed to revolve around the absence of adequate maps. How much simpler it would all have been if Hansel and Gretel had seen the legend, "House Made of Sweets/ Witch's Cottage - steer clear".
If history is written by the victors then geography is surely written by those who expect to win. Modern warfare - from the Second World War through to the Gulf Wars and beyond - is all about being able to accurately pinpoint your enemy's weak spots.
The American failure in Vietnam was largely down to not knowing where all the "gooks" were hiding. With the supreme advantage of satellite surveillance and heat imaging equipment, one would think The West would be unlikely to make the same mistakes again. Yet the war and subsequent "peace" in Iraq and Afghanistan has amply demonstrated the necessity to know one's enemy's whereabouts. And to be able to somehow map a state of mind.
I wanted to talk intelligently to the people at work but if it didn't concern television, football or bare breasts they didn't want to know. I tried some of the posher newspapers and magazines but a different type of snobbery was in evidence there, namely: "No poxy PhD from some snooty university? Then no public theorising, sunshine!" I seriously considered so-called vanity publishing. My ideas were worth broadcasting, surely? Maybe it was purely a matter of reducing them into the hook-line / catch phrase / sound bite of popular music, showbiz and politics.
For years, I also cherished the belief that there was more to the work of The Department than met the casual eye. Conversations would be suddenly truncated when I entered the rest room. Inexplicably complex memos were circulated daily and yet the work seemed unnervingly pedestrian. Surely it was just a smokescreen? I always chose my words carefully whenever we drifted off task and into gossip. When - after several months and years - nothing of import had yet been revealed to me, I changed tactics and began to rabbit very freely in the hope of stumbling upon the key phrases or passwords that would prove my trustworthiness.
Mary was dismissive of my worries. "It's just the usual office chit-chat and politics, dear," she maintained.
Eventually I mostly believed her, though it broke my heart to think that the surface appearance was the reality.
Perhaps I had been deliberately led down a blind alley to stop me causing consternation. The real buzz was elsewhere. There was a controlling clique who decided how and when original thought was to be disseminated into society at large. I possessed no map of this secret cartel's location but maintained an inner certainty that it would somehow be revealed to me. Everyone is subject to human error and it was up to me to stay alert and catch the clues as they inevitably tumbled in my direction. It might mean waiting years but I would make it my life's task to uncover the hidden location.
Inspired no doubt by A. A. Milne's transformation of his back garden and local park into the Hundred Acre Wood, I passed a childhood obsessed with the making of maps - spending fruitful hours of youthful leisure time preparing ever more complex paper representations of my room, my route to school or the nearby playground and shopping precinct. Soon I was into the creation of imagined treasure islands with buried chests of gold and chocolate. Even as a six-year-old I knew that all this apparent play was leading me somewhere and towards some sort of theorem.
Then it happened: During my first year of O' Level study I experienced the crowning moment of my whole life as I made the mental leap to the conclusion that if all current maps are of places we've already been or seen, the next phase of cartography must be to create intuitive and conjectural maps of places we have yet to explore. These maps would in themselves determine not just our expectations but also our findings.
The maps would create new worlds.
We maintained a frugal lifestyle, which enabled us to take a variety of foreign holidays. I used to joke that I was filling in segments of the globe as if re-constituting the British Empire. Whilst abroad, I would always invest in the local maps and guide books. Rectifying their many inaccuracies often took up the bulk of my vacation.
After a while I decided that to accurately map one small area, one space, even one subatomic conjunction, was at least as important as sticking "been there" flags in an atlas. So I stayed at home whenever possible, although I still prided myself on a commendable attendance record at The Department. I was narrowing my focus, mapping... and maybe controlling what I could of the microcosmic. I worked purposefully on this project for many years. I refused to move although Mary badgered me to get somewhere with extra bedrooms for our as yet unborn children. I could not take such a risk, believing all along that revelatory doorways were poised ready to open before me and it was just a matter of identifying, decoding and understanding the clues and messages all about me. Simple.
After two and a half decades, my beloved wife left me. In truth, I had gradually paid her less and less of the expected husbandly attention, as my various researches into: projection measurements; the Earth's surface considered as a series of orange peelings; the unsuspected topological effects of metrication; the incoming 3D and computer technology; and the unavoidable crux question of inclusion or omission left me with little time for social niceties. I'd always hoped she would support me through peak and trough but all her glossy monthlies and her permed and painted friends encouraged her to, "Go and find yourself." Her search did not in any visible way resemble my ongoing quest and soon enough she had rented her own flat and was attending yoga classes and art therapy with half the female population of Grinchley.
At the time, I rationalised it thus: she was an old campaign won through primitive cartography and I had further horizons to scan. After a while, however, I missed her desperately. With the Line Manager continuing to take a stone wall approach to my requests for secondments and special privileges, Mary was the only person who openly understood a percentage of my travails.
Or maybe she was history and I no longer needed historical artefacts. I could tell you anything about an ancient civilisation from their maps.
This boast allied to my conjectural mapping thesis left me in the anomalous position of being a seeming master of both past and future but a lonely, washed-up, middle-aged pen pusher in the present.
The Line Manager clamped down even further on our freedom of expression. I was not to raise the nature of our job or the wider cartographic issues implied during monthly staff council meetings. Admittedly, I was lacking in the requisite seniority but history - even that second class branch of the humanities - proves that many of the best ideas come from the lower employment orders. Albert Einstein was a mere clerk in a patent office, for goodness sake!
I suspected also that Senior Management had instructed my colleagues to subject me to subtle ridicule whenever I strayed onto forbidden territory. It was okay to query the amount of time allowed for a washroom break but to pose questions regarding whether Columbus discovered the world was round or took part in its spherical re-configuration just evoked howls of dismissive laughter. It seemed that either most of the clerical officers did not appreciate the gravity of our task or else my intellectual endurance was being thoroughly tested by my unseen superiors.
The identity of a place depends on what the arbitrators decide to include or leave out. I had hoped that my job with The Department would afford me some smidgen of this power to make the world through alchemical cartography, but it was not to be. There is always some higher authority abrogating all such power to itself. The most I can do is fight for my own little corner, ensuring that I am never reclassified as "No longer on the map".
Once upon a golden age all the disparate tectonic plates of the world were joined in one gigantic super continent: Pangaea. Without doubt it is this mythic land we remember in our dreams of Eden. One world, one nation; politics must have been much simpler then.
The shape of our country defines our temperament. We British, therefore, are a repressed, untrusting island race. Back in the days of Empire, our projections showed Africa as a fat continent replete with jewels and minerals for us to carelessly plunder. Nowadays we look and see a world map our forefathers would fail to recognise as recent left wing projections by Arno Peters and others have overturned the holy endeavours of the great Mercator and now show the more southerly land masses as overlong, scrawny root vegetables somehow surviving the clashing oceans on either side. Is it any wonder we associate such places with poverty and famine?
Oh, The Department gradually shifted into the so-called Information Age and we learnt to boot up second-hand computers and run bright primary colour programs to assist general orientation. I missed the old days of poring over faded scribbles and washed-out approximations. The new super-whiz graphics and holographic contour maps seemed more suited to TV shows such as Horizon and Time Team rather than proper work. Authors such as William Gibson and films like The Matrix pushed the idea that this virtual nonsense was somehow representative of a world which could be experienced as, or even become, "actual". I felt strongly that the authorities had twisted my theory into cyber-speak and thrown it back into my face. I was holding on for retirement. Steadfastly.
One rainy November evening, I found my ex-wife wandering the streets as if lost in the town of no return. She had changed - aged is the correct but unkind word - and even now has not entirely thrown off the apparent confusion blighting her mental state. I might otherwise have taken some pleasure in the homily that she had to go away to find out that here with me is her real home.
For much of the day now Mary sits silently in a corner of my study surrounded by discarded bits of paper. The writing and ideograms thereon achingly resemble an amalgam of several languages both primitive and modern without ever becoming entirely comprehensible. I suspect she is working on something really special.
It has long been known that animals can travel great distances without the conventional navigational aids so necessary to us poor humans. There are some who claim birds follow the Earth's magnetic lines or the relative position of the sun and that this enables them to recognise familiar places even if the landscape below has changed irrevocably. Salmon apparently follow their own secretions back to the spawning ground. I have never claimed that maps are solely the province of people or that they can only take on paper or parchment form. Indeed, in an age of increasing virtuality my non-copyright thesis of conjectural cartography is slowly gaining belated respectability.
When Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of silk perhaps it magically unravelled on the cold stone floor into a diagram of possible escape routes. When Orpheus was returning from the Underworld, did he stop to check his map by the light of cave-dwelling fireflies? Beautiful Eurydice, maintaining too close a distance, stumbled on top of him. He turned to help her in the dimness and…
The rats in the mazes are just teasing us. They know the way out perfectly well with their advanced senses of smell and direction. Their genus is taking belated revenge as what they will silently suffer today man will inflict upon fellow man tomorrow.
Which finds me here today, eking out a pensionable living through the British twilight and wondering over and over whereabouts I mislaid all those useless years. Bitter? Like lemon and vinegar, I'd say! Just another pile of question marks on the Sir Henry Uncton portrait of my life. Maybe my "Big Idea" wasn't so big after all. Dismissed by some snotty university professor well over three decades ago - "Conjectural mapping? Something of a Sunday afternoon daydream, don't you think?" - I have myself somewhat diluted the theory and allowed elements of it to trickle into my conversations and correspondence during the intervening period. Little good it's done me or anyone else.
On the third day, God separated the land and the water, giving us need to map and classify. With concentrated conjectural mapping we could be re-shaping the present and re-defining the future as surely as the original Creator Map-Maker.
Instead, I sit here stone-walled by the usual conclusion: you spend your whole life trying to add something to the overall sum of human knowledge but nobody really gives a damn.
Nobody wants to know.
(Previously published in "Urban Fantastic", Crowswing Books, 2006)