Arts: Maps of the human heart

A map's contours can be as familiar as the lines on a loved one's face. They not only tell us where we are going, but where we have come from. By Roger Deakin
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The Independent Culture
Ellis Martin's illustration for the cover of the 1919 edition of the one-inch Ordnance Survey map shows a pipe-smoking Glen Baxter type in shirt-sleeves and pullover seated with knapsack on a grassy-hillside vantage point studying a map of the countryside beyond. This is a generalised landscape with storybook woodland, a glimpse of river and bridge in the valley below, distant steeple, and far-off cliffs and sea. The idyll invites us to step in through its oak-garlanded frame and identify with this questing, leisured figure.

The map before him is the kind that suggests where you are going to, and it is quite distinct from another kind of map; the map of where you come from.

Parish maps, like the original Mappa Mundi, naturally fall into the second category. The Mappa Mundi was a mythic map showing the world as people imagined it; it showed where they were "coming from"; but it wouldn't have been much use for a circumnavigation. Only later did maps succumb to the common man's need for something more practical; something for the sea-discoverers, merchants and navigators.

The ambiguity of any map is implicit in the term "map-reading". Until we bring our imagination to bear upon it, the map is simply a collection of marks on paper, so the act of reading is a collaborative, creative process. How you read a map thus depends very much on your own internal limits. There is a world of difference between a trip (a loop, ending where you began), and a voyage. A voyage knows no limits, and suits a quite different state of mind.

A few years ago, I went exploring on Jura, the Hebridean island where Orwell lived and farmed towards the end of his life. I climbed to the top of one of the three Paps, the mountains that loom over the island. True to the Ordnance Survey spirit, I wrote in my notebook: "I could now see the whole island; a mass of brown, purple and green contours thrown into sharp, crinkly relief by the black shadows and the dazzling sunshine, like an atlas. And immediately I could see where I wanted to go, descending along the river to Glenbatrick bay and the solitary house by the white sands. I sat in the sun for half an hour in a state of extreme bliss. I could see Ireland, and across the glinting sea to Colonsay and all the other isles beyond, all the way to Lewes. Looking north again, I noticed the treacherous Gulf of Corryvreckan, which separates Jura from Scarba. It was here, in 1947, that Orwell was shipwrecked when he miscalculated the tides and took his boat into the whirlpool that lurks between the two islands."

I find this interesting now, not so much as an objective description of the place but for its subjectivity, as a description of what George Eliot calls (in Daniel Deronda) "the unmapped country within". My internal response to Jura had been conditioned by seeing Peter Brook's production of The Tempest only two days earlier in Glasgow, by reading about Orwell's life on the island, by having in my rucksack a copy of another work of island fiction, Marianne Wiggins's John Dollar, and by being cheerfully in love.

I had fallen in love with Jura, too, seeing it for the first time earlier that summer across the water from a kind of honeymoon hut on a promontory on the mainland. I desired the island, therefore I desired to explore and describe it, mapping it in my imagination long before I set foot on it, and long after I left. Perhaps love of a place, as with love of another person, can be just as paradoxical in widening the imagination through the very narrowing of focus. This is the metaphysical notion famously expressed by John Donne in "The Good Morrow".

"For love all love of other sights controules

And makes one little room, an everywhere."

An island, or a parish, accommodates to the imagination because it is framed or contained by the sea or by ancient boundaries, natural and supernatural. What might seem limiting and defining to one state of mind can be at once liberating to another. The richness of our island literature from Robinson Crusoe and Coral Island to Lord of the Flies and John Dollar suggests the potency of the metaphor.

Approaching Jura, still steeped in The Tempest, as a magical island, words on the map took poetic effect on my mind. The map cryptically mentions "raised beaches". The words recur like an incantation, forming a ribbon along the north-western shores reminiscent of the words repeated on David Nash's parish map of Blaenau Ffestiniog; "quarry", "path", "crag", "granite", "bog", "grass", so that the map literally speaks to us. The effect is similar to the quality Macaulay observed in Milton's verse when he said "Its merit lies less in its overt meaning than in its occult power."

There is no doubting the occult power of a raised beach, a ridge of big, smooth, pale grey, purple-veined pebbles, like curling stones or loaves, rising between 10 and 30 feet from the sea shore all along Jura's north- west coastline. A monument to centuries of giant waves roughing up the island, trying to flip it over the wrong way up. The island responded by throwing up huge wet-stone ramparts. On top of them, generations of ants founded ant-hills that grew to the size of small tumuli as they built on the ruins of their forebears. Heather, moss and bilberries took root in the fertile ant-compost, and deer nibbled them to a close-cropped topiary, like green thatched roofs.

Perhaps there is a name for these striking ant-works, but I am happy to say that it is not on the map, for even more magical than names are all the mysteries and wonders that attach to what the Greeks call "The unwritten places". The "Agrafa". These are the remote, secret places in the Pindos mountains that were never written on the map so as to avoid the imposition of taxes by the occupying Turks. Patrick Kavanagh describes his attachment to such things in his poem "On Reading a Book of Common Wild Flowers":

"I knew them all by eyesight long before I knew their names. We were in love before we were introduced."

Recognition, re-cognition, is a creative act that involves the memory and our own internal map of places, objects and people. It usually involves the affections too. Those ant-works are on a map; the invisible, collective map of anyone who has noticed them and delighted in them. We can recognise a map like an old friend; and an old friend like a map. In both instances, the sum of the features is a subtle language we may never fully understand. The human face, the portal of the soul, is a map we never tire of studying, and Paris, with its pavement cafes and restless eyes, is a whole city of mapreaders. This is how Stephen Spender described WH Auden's face:

"The second image of Wystan is of course the one with which you are all familiar: the famous poet with a face like a map of physical geography, criss-crossed and river-run and creased with lines. This was a face upon which experiences and thoughts had hammered; a face of isolated self-communing ... a face at once armoured and receptive."

Spender could well have been describing some ancient landscape. Here is a map being drawn out of love; a map of a man whose favourite personal landscape was remarkably like his own complicated face:

"Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery That was, and still is, my ideal scenery."

Because the "scenery" expresses the soul of a place, we say it is its "face", as you might say "the face of Kirkby Lonsdale". Like a portrait, a parish map can express the interior world of a place and its people- its unwritten places - and be the more truthful. You have to stare at something over and over again, in the words of Freud, until it speaks to you. The fishermen at the Cliffs Cafe in Overstrand near Cromer seem to know about this. They keep a windscreen wiper on the sill of the steamed- up bay window to clear the condensation and gaze out to sea.

The photographer Robert Capa said that when the picture wasn't good enough, he would always go in closer. This is just what the Boyle Family did in their "Journey to the Surface of the Earth", throwing darts blindfold at a map to select a location, then exhibiting works that presented fragments of the world such as York Stone Paved Yard Study With Draincover. Hung on the walls of the Hayward Gallery in 1986, the unfamiliar context sharpened our perception that things are there for the seeing, that "ordinary" things can be amazing. Beauty needs a frame, and the Boyles' work expressed what everyone can feel of delight and wonder at the inexhaustible splendour of things.

At the same time, the Boyles were demonstrating the sheer physical impossibility of ever mapping our world, and this, paradoxically, is what makes any map so interesting. There is no such thing as the definitive map. Like Auden's face, the world is "both armoured and receptive", still full of mysteries. There is still a new world waiting for us to discover, but it is not the one to which Donne's "sea-discovers" have gone. Like the things in a novel which are left unsaid, it is the gaps between words, the unsung, the unwritten places that haunt the imagination.

Jura, and the waters around the Jura, and the waters around the Corryvreckan whirlpool, were favourite "haunts" of Orwell, and now he haunts these places, lending them a heightened, mythic fascination. Wordsworth talks about "haunting spots of time", memories places waiting for the chance connection that will spring them vividly into the imagination. The psychoanalyst Wilfrid Bion relates just such a moment when a friend, leaning over a field gate in Warwickshire in the 1930s and passing the time of day with an old farm labourer, remarks on the profusion of dandelions in the field, some in flower, and some already gone to seed. The old man refers to them as "golden lads and girls", and to the dandelion "clocks" as "chimney- sweeps". Bion's friend, a Shakespeare scholar, is astonished thus to learn at last the meaning of two lines in the song in Cymbeline that had long puzzled him:

"Golden lads and girls all must

As chimney-sweepers come to dust."

He immediately reflects that Shakespeare may have looked on the same fields, that these are his Warwickshire haunts. He has stumbled upon one of the unwritten places.

n 'From place to PLACE: an Exhibition of People's Parish Maps' is at the Barbican Centre's Concourse Gallery, London EC2, from tomorrow to 30 June