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.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Bleak beauty


I went quiet last week when, for the first time in my life, my day job genuinely took over. I am still struggling to accept this happening, and to accept that I accepted it. It is often the second order worries about first order concerns that get to me the most.

Instead of boring you with the details, and believe me, they are boring, I dug out the photos I got developed recently. I had set these aside while I got over the usual disappointment, and sure enough, I like them more now I can see them for what they are, as opposed to images unrelated to what I perceived when I took them.

I cannot bear the feeling that I am missing an opportunity, and living in London with a full time job, snow tortures me in this regard. The best I could manage before I sloped off for Christmas was a tramp across Hampstead Heath and then a gloomy tour of the old filter beds by the canal in Leyton/Clapton. There's a spooky atmosphere there at the sunniest of times, but in failing light on a Sunday afternoon in December, everything muffled in Miss Haversham cobwebby white, it was quite unnerving.

The first photo (above) was the only one in which Diana achieved what I hoped she would, loaded with an Ilford XP2 Super 400 film which is supposed to give pale elements in a picture a supernatural glow. Not exactly blinding, I admit, but at least the contrast is there.

That was at lunchtime though. I suppose at close to 4pm my eyes adjusted to the winter gloaming and I stomped around forgetting that Diana needs help to let the right amount of light in. What she gave me, though, is a much truer representation of the atmosphere where I was.






This picture perfectly encapsulates my mind's eye memory of walks around Hackney Marshes and the canal at Leyton: creepy, washed out, low on contrasts, with a pylon in every frame. That's not to say I don't enjoy walking there; there is beauty in all that bleakness if you know where to look.

For once the canal water did look beautiful, black and glowering under the bowers of brightness that hung over it. The stoic flotilla of canal boats was still huddled together by the lock, as if proximity to the pub and human beings would warm their icy bottoms.


Being overwhelmed by my wage-earning work has inevitably led to more and more wild escape fantasies, to the point where even the job of heating a snow-covered barge has become appealing. Instead I intend to load Diana with a colour-saturating, light-loving colour film and take her away to a place where my thumb will be warm enough to wind her on without hurting us both.

Thanks for the destination suggestions in response to my last post; I am now investigating opportunities on www.workaway. info in the hope that I can swap accommodation in a beautiful place for working with nature in some form or other. That, and the chance to plough my mental energies back into writing fiction instead of emails. I will, of course, blog from the wondrous habitat in which I find myself when the time comes.