Maps: Telling a Story of Imagined Omniscience

In lieu of something original from me, I offer you something insightful by someone else – Michael Caines, in the Times Literary Supplement, reviewing a new British Library exhibition entitled Maps and the Twentieth Century: Drawing the line. It tellsa story of imagined omniscience,” Caines writes, “of the world seen in a series of bird’s-eye overviews, albeit on widely varying scales and for competing purposes.” The subject is entirely apropos as Britain debates and decides its identity and its future, a discursive brew chock full of  myths and realities.

What’s a map exhibit at a London institution without an entree focused on the city’s infamous underground?

It  is odd to think that one of the most popular of British maps insinuates an outright falsehood about the territory it covers – that all routes through it lie parallel, perpendicular or at 45 degrees to one another. As this sketched Tube Map by its originator Harry Beck illustrates, the London Underground’s subterranean tentacles required simplification to become comprehensible at a stranger’s glance long before they arrived at their current state of complexity. Here (back in 1931) the only sign of the world above ground is the meandering course of the River Thames, that more venerable metropolitan conduit – on the modern Tube Map, those smooth turns are, for the most part, right angles, as if the river has adapted itself to suit the Transport for London view of the world.

There’s something for students of political contention, too:

Although the exhibition divides war and peace into separate sections, the welcome, disorientating effect is of the two being constantly overlaid. Liverpool appears here as both a target for the Luftwaffe and a vast shrine to Beatle-mania. A Russian moon globe from 1961 recalls the superpowers’ space race. The Guardian’s excellent April Fools spoof of 1977 – a feature about the island of San Serriffe – is represented in the same display case as the Hundred Acre Wood, as based by E. H. Shepherd (under A. A. Milne’s guidance) on Ashdown Forest in Sussex. These exercises in imaginary cartography amuse even as they touch lightly on histories of violence: San Serriffe is supposed to be a former colony of the Spanish and Portuguese, and Milne wouldn’t have thought up Winnie the Pooh without a little help from both London Zoo and the Canadian lieutenant through whom it gained a bear called Winnie, formerly a regimental mascot, in 1919.

There’s more. Caines’ concluding note on a homogenizing representation of Africa’s physical geography – taken out of context here – is worth special mention: “It is a fine thing to be able to contemplate this non-human world made to some degree visible by cartographic means, as well as the one carved up by power-mad idiots. And, of course, the London Underground.”

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