A few of the final chapters are a little weak in comparison to the rest of the book, and I think the book could have done with some colour photos to bring them alive (some of the black and white ones aren’t very clear), but nonetheless it is well worth a read!
The book covers the history of British cartography, and especially Ordnance Survey, and how this was driven by our constant feuding with France. It looks at some of the weird map boundaries – between countries, counties and districts; how maps have been used for politics, propaganda, and religion; why maps are assumed to be a male domain; and finally a discussion of the “moronic blandishments of the satnav age”.
Mike’s map obsession (and it is an obsession), started at the age of 6 when he discovered a relief map of the West Midlands and Wales carved out of plastic hidden in the cellar. I have actually come across one of these at a friend’s parent’s house in Brecon – it is a truly wonderful, with lumps of plastic rising out of the map to mark hills and mountains (the print on the bigger mountains have long since worn away from countless fingers caressing the peaks!).
Despite being obsessed with maps, and especially Ordnance Survey maps, there are, apparently, people even more obsessed than Mike. There are people out there who collect them, like stamps, with the ultimate aim of owning every single edition of every single map Ordnance Survey ever produced.
I do like Ordnance Survey maps, but I am not sure I am obsessed (borderline perhaps?). I remember in Geography lessons as a child being captivated by the OS symbols – this served me well later when I joined the cadets and had to plan routes across Dartmoor and Exmoor. Nowadays I always buy the OS map for any new area I am staying for more than a few days, not just the paper copy but a mobile version for use with Viewranger for walk navigation and associate geek benefits!
Mike used to drag his poor grandparents across the West Midlands to have a look at things that looked interesting on the map – from model villages to farms in the middle of motorways. Researching this book seemed to give him an excuse (if he needed it) of going off and visiting other interesting map features across the British Isles.
The British Empire and France
Mike argues that Britain’s status as world-beaters in cartography comes from our imperial history and military bravado – “we started needing maps in order to go and rough up bits of the rest of the world and declare them to be ours”. This was heightened by the intense neighbourly rivalry between Britain and France.
Ah, la bella France. Our nearest neighbour, archest rival, flirtiest paramour, oldest, bestest friend and bitterest foe, all rolled into one…. We look down on them for their pomposity, their flagrantly over-inflated sense of their own importance, their rudeness, their insularity, their ponderous bureaucracy, their clinging to a long-vanished past, their dodgy new best friends, their fiercely centripetal politics, their all-round unwarranted, swaggering arrogance. They look down on us for precisely the same reasons.
One of my favourite sections of the book is when Mike describes the goings on at the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington, where the Greenwich Meridian was eventually chosen as the zero point from which all other latitudes are measured. The conference was basically a battle of words between the British camp (including the Americans, who played bad cop to our good cop) and the French, who wanted the honour for themselves (they were already a bit smug to have got the meter recognised – something the Americans still haven’t taken up!)
Mike’s detailed account of the origins of the Ordnance Survey, through to present day, is an amazing journey of dedication and vision. There is so much I didn’t know about Ordnance Survey – how the covers (before marketing men got their hands on them) were originally plain, how a few years ago the tankard image was modified with one with less beer in, that rights of way information was only added in 1960, and that only 80 of the 204 Landranger don’t make a loss.
The chapter on borders is fascinating – from Europe’s wonkiest border, between Belgium and Netherlands, to enclaves such as Gaza Strip, Ceuta and Gibraltar.
It is not just these major, political, borders between countries that have a major effect on the population. I grew up in a small village in the northern tip of Buckinghamshire (right on the border with Northamptonshire), I now live in the next door village (in Northamptonshire) – despite being only a few miles apart, there seems to be this massive divide between the two villages, as if they were in different countries!
The saga of Britain’s smallest County, Rutland is enchanting. Rutland, with it’s 36,000 inhabitants, has constantly been fighting against being merged with Leicester. Especially enjoyable is Mike’s tale of his trip to Rutland!
The final few chapters
Towards the end of the book, I couldn’t help feeling that the final few chapters had been tacked on as fillers, as they seem to lack the enjoyable flow of the rest of the book.
The chapter on erotic map features in particular just seemed a little childish and unnecessary. Yes, the Mull of Kintyre looks a bit like a willy, and yes, The Cerne Giant does indeed have an erect member, but does it really need it’s own chapter? There were a few interesting snippits about the streets, in towns throughout the uk, frequented by prostitutes (in the same way “Baker Street” told visitors where to find bakers, “Gropecunt Lane” told you where to find some female company) – all the streets have since, of course, been renamed.
I am, however, completely in agreement with Mike on Satnav (or ‘Pratnav’ as the chapter is called). Satnavs make people stupid, drones to the, often incorrect, female voice (or BA from A-team, or whatever voice you have wasted money buying).
Satnavs are one more gadget to disempower us, to turn us into mindless jelly brains that cannot take any responsibility for ourselves
I like to know not just where to go next, but where I am now and what is around me. I want to be able to make my own choice as to how I am going to get somewhere – which route, based on the map, looks the most interesting and fun to drive. I will hopefully be the last person on Earth to have a Satnav (well except perhaps Mike Parker!).