Saturday, 12 February 2011

Map of me

Maps in books always fascinated me as a child – the hand drawn maps in Winnie the Pooh being a favourite. I used to draw my own of our garden and the school grounds, adding all the imaginary elements that reflected how I played in them with my brother and friends. I have a clear map in my head of the world of my novel, and when I ever get around to building a website for it, I plan to use this as the basis. It will have to be drawn by somebody more skilled with a pencil than me though.

When my father announced he was throwing out his collection of maps, saying he no longer had any use for them, I asked him to post them to me instead.  An email arrived with the ominous warning that I should take a large rucksack to the post office if I had to collect the parcel, and couple of days later a twelve kilo box was sitting in my hallway.

My father also wrote to say it had been a strange experience, going through the collection to package them up, as it represented a map of his life. For him there must have been memories associated with every one, of walks and views, holidays, homes, people and feelings. Spreading them out across the floor, recognising so many places myself but also finding alien territory, felt surprisingly intrusive, as if the maps might reveal far more than physical terrains. They really did represent a familiar person to me, bringing a rush of my own memories of walks as well as imaginings of my father in each place I hadn’t been.

One of the defining memories of my childhood, and an image that pops into my head so frequently it is a bit like a mental screensaver, is of my father’s little fingernail tracing the path on a map that we would take through a wood, or across a moor. I can pan out to see us bent over the rectangle of paper, and think of the associated revelations of how to use contour lines to navigate, or the meaning of cartographer’s symbols. I remember my disappointment on discovering that an indication of ancient ruins on a map would not mean I would find a tumbledown castle over the next ridge, or that a fort would turn out to be no more than a bump in a field.

My father’s maps reveal not just spaces he has inhabited, but a chronology of travel, encoded in their price stickers. The oldest OS maps are marked at 40p, and the prices gradually creep up, past the £1 mark, right up to the more recognisable figure of £7.99. I feel the urge to put them in order on a shelf, but folded in their card covers their beauty and meaning are hidden. There’s enough paper there to wallpaper my entire flat (one room is already half-papered in maps), but somehow reducing them do decoration wouldn’t feel right either.

Perhaps the best way to use them will be for inspiration, like a destination lottery. I might find myself in a long-forgotten landscape from my childhood, and who knows what memories I might also find there. I wish they showed the paths my father did choose when he used them in those places, and I wonder if he would remember. I’ll try this myself on the ones where I know I’ve been, since these are not just maps of my father, but the start of a map of me.


  1. I love maps too, especially the old Michelin maps of France that are thin and pale. My grandfather was blind and he used to say that losing maps was one of his few sadnesses.

  2. Maps in books ARE great. I tried my hand at one once and totally failed. I suppose I shall just stick to writing! ;-)

    Just a quick note to say: You have an award waiting for you at my blog, The Write Words!

  3. Thank you Lindsey, it's my first! I'll be over to collect it shortly.

  4. I am never good with directions, maps or anything related to it....Congratulations on the award....