I blog when I go abroad, and occasionally when I do stuff in the UK too. There's a nicer interface over here.

Friday, January 19, 2007

London: A Life In Maps

In a fit of culture I went to the British Library last weekend, to have a butcher's at their London Maps exhibition. Quite good it was. I was expecting more schematics than there were, I can only recall there being any in the last bit where a few tube and train maps cropped up; mostly the maps were just maps of central London, concentrating on the north side of the river (from St James's to the Tower, really) to begin with and gradually increasing in scope as London itself did so. Took a good while to come across a map that went out far enough that it had Surbiton labelled on it, and even then it was spelt Serbiton. C'uh.

The little bits of text describing each map were great. I loved reading about two cartographers in the 1600s, whose names escape me but who were vying for supremacy in the burgeoning "map London" industry, if that's what you can call it. The idea that people back in the day really did have arch enemies, as they were referred to, appeals greatly to me. I wonder if I can cultivate such a relationship with a coder at, say, Google.

Understandably enough a lot of the maps were pretty samey. Understandable because there's an objective truth being laid out, obviously. Because of that it seemed the rival map makers had to find their own way of making their mark and trying to convince people (financers or royalty, I assume) that theirs was best. In at least 3 instances the tactic seemed to be "make the map as ridiculous in scale as possible; make it out of 16 sheets, 8 high by 2 wide, such that a ladder is required to see the top; or make it so long it takes 5 minutes to walk from one end to the other". Yes, some of the maps were huge, and not just because they wanted to include masses of detail either. In fact some of the most detailed maps were a pretty normal size and required lots of squinting to make sense out of.

Having to walk from one end to another of a map brought London's size into context though. I recently walked from Waterloo station to Tower Bridge and back of an evening -- in the late 1600s, that was the entire breadth of the city. When I walked the 13 miles home back in November, that would have been an epic journey worthy of chronicling, through countryside and lots of disparate villages. Bit different now.

Other ways of making the maps stand out seemed to be in the insignia. In a spare bit of space on most maps was the title, the author's name, the long subtitle that was all the rage, and all that gubbins. They were surrounded with the most immaculately presented and fabulously detailed little coat-of-arms type things and were, in general, far more ornate and impressive than the maps themselves. Odd.

It was quite interesting to learn that the train system, certainly in south west London (the Kingston Loop et al) is the same now as it was in the late 1800s; it was very funny to see a PUBLIC TRANSPORT IS TERRIBLE AND WILL KILL YOUR HORSES pamphlet; but the best thing of the whole exhibition was seeing a panorama that didn't use the word panorama -- oh no -- it was a cosmorama. That's my new favourite word, that is.

I really hate the HSBC cash machines at Cambridge Circus. Every time I use them I forget just how tormenting they are. Here's a tip: always ask for an amount of pounds divisible by 20. Don't be fooled by them offering you £30 or £50 -- they never have tenners and always ask you to pick £40 or £60. Poxy fucking things.

1 comment:

Danivon said...

mate, I love maps