There are a few books I expect to have an aura. They should glow from the scores of hours of rapt attention I have given them – the light, the joy, the fascination I have drawn from them made visible. Many of these books, perhaps most, would be books of maps, and one of them is certainly The Nelson Universal Hand-Atlas, published in the middle of the 1920s and bought by me in Oxford in the middle of the 1990s. There’s no record of how much I paid, but it can’t have been much as I was in my mid-teens, and sinking most of my funds into 2000 AD comic books and half-pints in pubs that understood that a 16-year-old’s need to adapt his brain chemistry was more important than some piddling statute. Whatever was paid, it has been repaid many thousands of times over.
The Nelson Hand-Atlas, as its name suggests, is comfortably hand-sized: about the dimensions of a small paperback, but bound in hard covers. At the front are the vital statistics of the British Empire, a variety of comparative charts, all topped by the British Empire, lists of important explorers, pages of pre-Pluto astronomy, and world maps showing terrain, average rainfall, and the pink, plump extent of said Empire. A favourite map shows telegraphs and cables, another the main shipping routes; a world steadily accelerating, contracting, being sewn together. The Atlantic is thick with connections and they are worming their way into the blank spaces of Asia, Africa and South America. At the back is a section devoted to “The Ancient World”: the world according to Herodotus (BC 450) and Hipparchus (BC 150), the Roman Empire, Palestine (Old Testament) and Palestine (New Testament).
Between these pages of useful information are the maps themselves. About one in six of these are in colour, and what colour: bubblegum pink, minty green, marzipan yellow, blackcurrant purple. These are inked in a tight crosshatch, thickening to solidity at each boundary, giving every country or prefecture thus separated a delicious emphasis. A shattered world, split apart and stitched up by the Treaty of Versailles and scores of mendacious colonial carve-up agreements, is made beautiful and placid, a tray of candies for the eye, a pretty quilt thrown over still-warm battlefields. The splendidly patrician preface to the Nelson alludes to this planetwide upheaval and violence with a clerk’s concern for the paperwork that has resulted, and throws in a sales pitch: “The lapse of time and the political changes consequent on the Great War have necessitated a thorough revision of this Hand Atlas, the popularity of which is based upon its convenient size and its low price, together with the accuracy and excellent printing of the Maps.”1 1. I like that capital M at the head of the word Maps.
It gives the word an appropriate sense of importance. But it’s a rare atlas that is not guilty of perjury for a hundred crimes. And for all its apparent orderliness and progress, the world in the Nelson Hand-Atlas would exist for less than two decades. England sleeps under a cobweb of branch-lines. Owen’s sad shires have their ancient boundaries. The Golden Gate lacks its Bridge. The South Polar regions are a blank surrounded, but for a couple of bony fingers, by an unconfident dotted line.
The national and political maps, however attractive, weren’t my chief interest in the Nelson, however much I liked to spot disappeared polities and trace railways through Alpine valleys and tunnels. Best of all were the city maps. These were plentiful, but mostly small and black and white – indeed, only Paris gets the full palette, a strange choice given the atlas’s otherwise solid promotion of British primacy in all things.
But the black and white does lend something to the cities. Some New World grids are given simply as line drawings, an open chessboard awaiting players, experiments in geometry, wild bays and rivers made tame by set-square. In other maps, the built-up area is indicated by dense black crosshatch. These are not sweeties but smudges. Full-colour Paris is a nursery decoration, orange buildings and yellow streets, green parks and the blue line of the Seine. It’s picturesque. London, however, is a horizon-filling thundercloud radiating railways in every direction, a ferocious intense mass on the page, so dense and tangled that a second spread is needed to trace the black rails between vanished terminals: Angerstein Wharf, Broad Street.
The Nelson’s city maps are full of puzzles and questions. Why does the Chinese city of Shanghai have a separate “Chinese town” marked?2 2. Later, the autobiographical writings of JG Ballard would answer this one for me.Petrograd (Leningrad),3 3. Sic. The atlas’s authors perhaps held out hope that the Soviet Union would turn out to be a flash in the pan. has cute little trees around it, a unique decorative feature. It also has a railway that apparently protrudes deep into its bay. In Melbourne, part of the coast is marked by a cluster of tiny square lollipops, which are marked “baths”. In fact, most of the maps were ports and many of the oddities were maritime. What happened in the “Examination Anchorage” off Singapore, and why was it triangular? What is a “Quarantine Mole”? The names of some of the dock features were enchanting as well as mystifying: “Boompjes” in Rotterdam, “Hulk Hole” in Kingston, Jamaica.
An underlying mystery, only obvious in retrospect, is what exactly was holding my attention to these little monochrome maps. They are not at all evocative of place. Bay, peninsula, river. There’s nothing to suggest much difference between Winnipeg and Buenos Aires. Landmarks are picked out, but these are mostly stout, ubiquitous 19th-century institutions: customs houses, asylums, distilleries, observatories. Whatever fascination was being fed, it was not for the rich diversity of the world’s urban cultures: the Nelson regulated all the cities it included into staid Edwardian uniformity, from Teesside to Tokyo.
My parents noticed my interest in city maps and, no doubt favouring it over 2000 AD and underage drinking, indulged it. They bought me several atlases, among which my favourite was Town and City Maps of the British Isles, 1800–1855,44. ed. by Ashley Baynton-Williams, Dolphin, 1993 a very large book filled with full-colour maps. These were gathered from a variety of sources – Cole & Roper, John Wood, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge,55. Founded 1827 by John, Earl Russell, and Henry Brougham, later Lord Chancellor of England, according to Baynton-Williams’ introduction. and Tallis’s splendid Index-Gazetteer of the World6 6. That title in full:
Index-Gazetteer of the World, Illustrated With Plans of the Principal Towns in Great Britain, America &c. Drawn and engraved from the most recent government surveys, and other authentic documents. of 1851 – but shared qualities. First was uncommon beauty: these old town maps suffer from mostly being seen in frames in heritage pubs and certain upper-middle-class homes, but taken from behind glass and divested of stuffy context their artistry could shine. Brighton’s long thin blocks stacked like biscuit-thin Roman bricks, Bristol a swirl of rivers. Second, like the Nelson, much of this artistry was in the use of colour. Fields are in varying soft shades of green, parks have neat little trees and shrubs to suggest planting and landscaping, and rivers, ponds and coasts are washed and edged in blue, as you’d expect. Roads and streets are left uncoloured, railways (where they have penetrated) are solid black lines. There’s some variation in the colours used to indicate buildings, but not too much: terracotta, tanned flesh, the dusky pink of council grit, tea brown.
It’s normal to use these fleshy colours to indicate built-up areas, a convention that must have arisen with the printing techniques of the first half of the 19th century: copperplate, the intaglio process, lithography. Perhaps they are intended to evoke brick, but Victorian brick rarely had this macaroon delicacy in smoke-filled air. Coal warmed and dark-ened even country towns. Certainly there’s no hint of soot or slate or shit or squalor. A few of them have, at their edges, little illustrations of notable buildings. But there’s nothing to connect those build-ings to the map. Some details suggest architectural features: a line of dots for a colonnade, the abutments of a bridge, the cloisters and flying buttresses of a great cathedral like a technical schematic.
Like the Nelson Hand-Atlas, Town and City Maps doesn’t give much sense of urban distinction or difference. The cities within it have been arranged into an appealing narrative, a fictional narrative. As I’ve said, deceit is always the primer in the art of the atlas. They are by nature tendentious and sometimes delusional as well, so we shouldn’t be surprised at their charming fabulism. What I’m left wondering, though, is what the root of my fascination with these maps was – and, honestly, is, as I can still happily pour an hour or two into these books. Minus a true sense of place, these maps were not spurs to travel or exploration –
I was left not much the wiser as to whether Odessa or Exeter was an interesting place to visit or not, and the passage of history always left me doubtful that a quirk visible in the map would still be there in the present.
This semi-blankness did make the maps cue for the imagination – I could, and did, fill in my own buildings, and was rarely happy with the city’s layout as pictured. Those two streets could be linked into a grander avenue with just a little demolition, and I had little way to tell if I was tearing down slums or treasures. Neatness is a catastrophic instinct in the planner, and so hard to combat. It wasn’t long until I was working on my own maps from scratch, scribbling away at my own city plans in smudgy, sooty pencil. I would try to create conurbations and the terrain they filled unconsciously, to set myself challenges to solve later, and to recreate accidents of history – freewriting cities in a stream of urban consciousness.7 7. If it sounds like the computer game SimCity and its sequels were ideal for me, they were, and I have been playing them for more than 20 years, still trying to find a way to overcome the instinct to plan and make orderly, and instead make interesting mistakes. See also my essay “Time Extend: SimCity 4”, EDGE 215, June 2010.
What I was doing was regurgitating the aesthetic picked up from my atlases. It would be wonderful to call this a kind of story-writing, but stories exist in the telling, the sharing with others, and I fear my maps were only really legible to myself, and I shared them with no one.8 8. However it’s interesting (to me if no one else) that I chose to set my first novel in an imaginary city, a composite of European places, which I could freely map out without regard to anything as bothersome as facts. This was a very personal form of art – an arcane art which I now realise is the quality I was hunting in those atlases, a magical urban intensity of concentration on a page, a sense of the gathering mass of buildings and humanity to be found in a city, an aestheticised channelling of the wonder of cities themselves, unique and universal, their forms and patterns on the ground, the work of thousands of people working blindly together across generations. Roads and rails spread out, the density builds at the centre like an emerging thought. It was not cities I sought but the nature of cities. I was not imagining new places, I was writing new atlases. My atlases.