Friday, 2 July 2010

Book review: "Map addict", by Mike Parker

This book was one of two we picked up when visiting the British Library's excellent exhibition on maps, 'Magnificent Maps'. I was unaware that it was on, and only went because we were visiting a couple of friends in the capital. After an unexpected view of the Queen's Birthday flypast and lunch in Chinatown, we made our way to St Pancras.

The exhibition itself was fascinating, with maps varying from an exquisite copy of the Mappi Mundi to Grayson Perry's funny take on that ancient map. Most of the maps on display were hand-drawn objects of art. As with the best art, the deepest beauty lay in the detail, some of which was distinctly non-cartographic: a solitary soldier awaiting battle, or a self-study of a group of surveyors. It was a fascinating way to spend an hour, especially for a self-confessed map addict.

Mike Parker's book "Map addict" is very much about the author's private relationship with maps, interwoven with the history of the Ordnance Survey and mapping in general. As such you expect the book to be very much tailored around his own personal experience. On occasion this grates. For instance, when talking about the way that the OS was run by military officers and the 'Establishment' (note the capital 'E') he says:
The organisation has, after all, been pretty thoroughly decontaminated...
'Decontaminated' is a very loaded word to use, especially when those very people created the works of art that so captivated him as a child. Broadened, certainly; opened up, yes; but saying it was 'decontaminated' seems fairly squalid, as if anything that has been touched by the military needs a thorough cleansing before it is suitable to be seen by the public.

Other parts similarly rankle - he describes with disdain a preserved railway on a certain map. He wants them to have a different symbol, and talks in almost nasty terms of the people who travel on them.
There should be a special symbol for these toy trains that doesn't confuse them with the real thing: my suggestion would be a pictogram of a grinning old man dragging a reluctant grandson along. Such an image could be misconstrued, I realise, but perhaps not entirely without justification. 
Firstly, this is plain nasty rather than funny. Secondly, there is just such a symbol; a blue steam train. This section seems odd when he also talks about the way that maps have to cater for the diverse interests that are found in society and, increasingly, the leisure sector. Just because you are not interested does not mean that others are not. I have little use for knowing where to fish or sail, yet I do not begrudge the symbols on the map. He continues later in the book:
And if you consider that the only other probable outcomes to such a start would have been to end up as a Neighbourhood watch coordinator or a volunteer on a steam railway, I may well have got away relatively unscathed. 
 He certainly has a thing about preserved railways and their volunteers. He also has a thing about Harold Shipman lookalikes and stereotypes about women not being able to read maps (although he later readily accepts that women are better at visualising a city - apparently, invented stereotypes are fine one way but not the other).

Mike Parker is on firmer ground in other areas. His description of how maps are closely allied with identity, both national and local, is excellent. A different projection of a map can cause howls of anguish; for instance the BBC got in trouble when their new weather map made the southeast of England seem bigger than Scotland. He details these travails well, including a well-written discussion of the battle between the Mercator and Peters projections of the world map. Strangely enough, these things matter, and he discusses the somewhat complex issues in a light manner.

The last chapter, 'Going off-map' starts as a description of how disorienting it can be for a map addict to try and do without a map. It then languishes in a discussion of travel guidebooks and the author's trip around Eastern Europe, the only point of which seems to be to promote his wish for Britain to be split up into its constituent countries. Frankly, it had nothing to do with maps - maps and guidebooks are very different beasts.

Then there are the things that are missing from this book: there is no description, however wittily put, of how these maps were created; Jesse Ramsden is mentioned briefly, and so is the creation of the baseline along Hounslow Heath. However, there is little about the many different surveys that have been made of Britain, or of how succeeding generations have worked to get ever more accurate maps until we have reached the current ultimate with differential GPS. There is no real mention of the men who for decades climbed remote, windswept mountain peaks, waiting for skies to clear so they could take measurements. The work of generations of surveyors demands a mention. Neither is there a mention of levelling, almost as important a factor in surveying as the actual two-dimensional location. There is no mention of Newlyn (the Cornish town is the home of the official tidal benchmark, from where all heights in Britain are taken 'above sea level').

He also details his dislike of satnavs. His case is overstated: he mentions a friend whose satnav directed him the wrong way down a motorway sliproad. Yet that is not the fault of the satnav: they are only advisory devices, and the driver should use his own common sense in combination with the device's instructions. Blaming the device is only an excuse for bad driving and lack of attention.

In the end this is a disappointing book- what is described as mixing 'wry observation with hard fact' really mixes nastiness with the author's personal prejudices. It goes distinctly off-topic in several areas, something I can only assume was done as a space-filler. Several of his attempts at humour were highly misplaced. This book was a pleasant read, but it could have been a great read. It is a missed opportunity to write an accessible book on mapping and map-lovers.

I award this book two out of five stars. It is so nearly a really good book, but it gets lost on its way to the target.

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