A crumb of comfort in a land without maps

`An Englishman is uneasy unless he knows which ocean will finally receive his urination'

A WEEK ago I passed on to you the quiz question I had been posed by a man from America, namely: which states in the US are the most northerly, southerly, westerly and easterly? I then gave you slightly wrong answers (it should have been that Hawaii is the farthest south, and Alaska the farthest north, west and east), as a result of which the correspondence columns buzzed briefly, putting me right.

That was all right. I don't mind being put right. After all, like most journalists I rely on readers for my education. What did rile me was getting a fax from an American reader which accused me of having "pathetically bad geography".

Now, this cut me to the quick. An ignorance of the layout of the states of the US is not the same thing as being pathetically bad at geography - after all, I wouldn't expect an American to know the layout of English counties. But what made it worse was the fact of being accused of bad geography by an American. After all, considering that the Americans rule the world, they are notoriously ignorant of its geography.

I am not talking now of the well-travelled American, the kind of American who gets out, learns languages, imbibes other cultures and forces everyone to drink Coke and eat rubbishburgers. I am talking of the majority of Americans, that huge mass of people who have never owned a passport, never been anywhere else and don't want to go anywhere else. We assume that Americans who go in coachloads to Stratford-on-Avon, or think that because it's Tuesday it must be Brussels, are the ordinary mass of Americans, the cowed crowd, but they're not. They are the adventurous ones! Any American who leaves his native shore is, by definition, adventurous. The unadventurous ones are at home, watching the world on television and being bad at geography.

They don't even know their own country. My wife flew once to Rhinelander in Wisconsin, changing at Washington DC. The officer in charge of air transfers had never heard of Rhinelander and didn't know what airport code to put on the luggage. He couldn't even find it on the huge, Perspex- covered map of the US on the wall behind him, until they realised that the place was covered by a crumb behind the Perspex. They then solemnly had to unscrew the whole Perspex panel and remove the crumb, which had worked its way down over the years, to find out the code. No wonder that when my wife finally arrived in Rhinelander, she found people wearing T-shirts bearing the ironic slogan: "Where The Hell Is Rhinelander?"

I know from my own experience that they are bad at geography because I have been to the US, and I have bought American maps in order to drive in places as far apart as Louisiana and Vermont. Having seen how uninformative and misleading and badly designed American maps are, I am amazed that Americans are able to move from one place to another at all.

I was encouraged to find backing for this view the other day in Stephen Potter's Potter on America. It seems that things weren't much different 40 years ago: "I try to buy a map of the US for my route. The regular maps on sale are indecipherably pock-marked with a million names, and are totally without those revealing blues and greens and browns which enable one to have a faint idea of rivers and a height or two. The US people - most surprisingly for a nation of nomads and trailer-folk - have not yet acquired the taste, so universal among Englishmen, for the well-spaced detail of our Ordnance inch-mile map, nor for the beautiful bird's eye view given by Bartholomew half-inch. I hardly found an American who knew which watershed he was in, which left me, as an Englishman who is uneasy unless he knows which ocean will finally receive his urination, scandalised."

In fairness to the US, I am reminded by reading Potter that the best joke ever made about watersheds was made by an American. When I was in Peru, I was told that an American VIP, being taken up the Andes by train, was informed that the highest spot of the railway, on the watershed of the Andes, was not out in the open at all but was in the highest tunnel on the line.

"The watershed between Peru and Brazil, eh?" he said. "Then will you please stop in the tunnel for me?"

They did, puzzled. Even more puzzled, they watched him get down from the cab, walk into the darkness of the tunnel and return, buttoning up his trouser flies.

"It has always been my ambition," he explained, "to water the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans simultaneously."

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