Maps: Follow the map and you'll find the mapmaker

As the Institute of British Geographers gathers at Guildford University this week, they have corralled their discussions under the theme Changing Places. It is a telling pun, hinting at the way geography is mutating - becoming more about cultural studies, more about environmental change, more about the dynamics of land-use and societies. Geography is keen to bury its reputation for being about river-lengths and mountain- heights.

Actually, it is the discipline's oldest practice, cartography, which has, so to speak, been put on the map. Last year, The English Patient reduced the nation to a crumpled Kleenex as it told of a flying map-maker who had lost his way round his own history. A science writer, Dava Sobel, had a continuing hit with her Longitude, which featured the 18th-century clockmaker John Harrison's attempt to make a machine that could match the regularity of the stars the better to allow people to know where on earth they were. Thomas Pynchon makes energised fun of some of the same themes in his Mason and Dixon, the story of the ill-matched latitudinisers who marked the divide between Maryland and Pennsylvania. This was only after they had visited the observatory on the island of St Helena, which for centuries starred prominently in the evolution of map-making and astronomy. It featured also in the imagination of Francis Godwin, the 17th-century Bishop of Hereford whose account of a journey from St Helena to the moon (drawn by swans) was republished in 1996 (ed. Andy Johnson and Ron Shoesmith, Logaston Press). The Man in the Moone was the first sci-fi novel, state its editors, who also give a straightforward account of what it was likely the Bishop knew about the Moon and its relations with the Earth.

Why the interest? We know that the making of the modern mind depended on the exploration of physical spaces - and what those spaces meant to their European discoverers can best be seen in the way they drew the new territories. Three new books on mapping came out late last year, and they show that maps tell you as much about the people who made them, or for whom they were made, as they do about the terrain they appear to be about. Map-makers are charting the inside of their own heads.

Jeremy Black makes the point: he is professor of history (not, note, geography) at Exeter University and his Maps and Politics (out last month, Reaktion Books, pounds 19.95) discusses the way no map can be true: it is flat and smooth, while the world is round and bumpy. Map-makers use the fact to skew things whichever way their bosses or political agendas dictate. The US National Geographic Society, for instance, chose a new projection of the world in the 1980s: it more accurately portrayed the Soviet Union as being much smaller than Cold War depictions had it. Not, one imagines somehow, that Sir John Cotterell would have dared to bully Claire Philp, the mapper of country estates, including his, in Herefordshire. She seems to pride herself on the absence of fancy in her exquisite detailing of other people's prized territory.

Jerry Brotton's elegant Trading Territories (Reaktion Books, pounds 22.95) shows how historically maps were about facilitating trade and celebrating (and exerting) influence. And he makes a fair case that modern research reveals what we had perhaps forgotten: that the Ottoman empire could map and navigate pretty well, too.

Jeremy Black is a bit of a revisionist, thank goodness. He gently rebukes an Eighties tendency to see map-makers as imperialists and propagandisers. He nicely points out that colonial England's OS insisted that Ireland be mapped with Gaelic names. Localised nomenclature was the rule at home, so it ought to be "overseas" too.

He also remarks how difficult it is to make a map subtle. In maps as in parliaments, proportional representation is difficult. A political map of Scotland, for instance, would show a country dominated by Labour, but how to nuance the colouring to take account of other parties?

Increasingly, we see that maps really are about chaps. We want to map intangibles. Our forebears did, too. As a text-board for Hereford's newly restored Mappa Mundi remarks: "The larger medieval world maps were visual encyclopaedias. They also located man in space and time, and in relation to eternity."

Technology helps us to do bits of this even better. Simon Rendel, who died terribly young last year, was a polymath landscape architect and used digitised information to map tranquillity for the Council for the Protection of Rural England. He mapped things like roads, which loom larger on maps than they would on aerial photographs (that contributes to our obsession with them). Rendel had them loom larger yet: he coloured them according to their busyness and their destruction of quiet. It was a work of genius: a portrayal of access was enhanced to show blight too. But maps are like that: marooned halfway between pictures and narratives, they are best when they tell tales.

Another revolutionary map-maker, Daniel Dorling, made his New Social Atlas of Britain (1995, John Wiley, pounds 55) bulge and slenderise the country according to where the population was: we had the country redrawn to show us where the weight of opinion - quantitively - was. Granted that maps can't be entirely territorially accurate or neutral, they might just as well be mucked about with very creatively indeed.

A busy fellow, Black's Maps and History (Yale University Press, pounds 25) was also out last year and it showed how our ancestors themselves mapped their own (and our own) ancestors. He notes how 20 years ago the Times Atlas of World History was the first to use the computer's ability to give us really interesting, often skewed, perspectives. The viewer was given the illusion of flying over the empires, invasions and immigrations in a satellite.

Mitchell Beazley's Atlas of World Resources was similarly rich in text and vignettes: the first environmental atlas, and far better than various right-on attempts since, whose relative poverty Black notes.

Dorling Kindersley has produced the nearest thing to a successor: its huge new World Atlas ("Mapping the world for the new Millennium", pounds 45, slipcased) is so exciting it looks and reads like a multimedia. At first, the maps seem to take up too little space compared with all the clever charts and photos - but then you realise the sheer number of pages adds up to plenty of mapping too.

One of the reasons why maps are interesting now may be that we have noticed that geography and especially navigation don't matter to modern people. Perhaps the army had it right, as Henry Reed reported in his poem "Lessons of the War": "... maps are of time, not space...". There are plenty of us who are unclear where Birmingham and New York are, but we know the journey time. I have travelled from New York to Washington several times and seen their relationship on a map dozens of times, but I can never remember which is the more northerly.

I would make a useless Inuit. Two decades ago, the anthropologist Hugh Brody filled our heads with accounts of Inuit thinking in his Maps and Dreams. It planted the idea that white map-makers drew much Inuit territory as a blank. Without maps, the Inuits had a far richer imaginative vision of their lands: names and distances and animal populations carpeted what was the white man's terra incognita.

Actually, it is a mistake to think that we have grown beyond geography. Vincent Ward made a wonderful film, The Map of the Human Heart (Cinema Club, pounds 5.49) about a map-making aviator who takes a Inuit boy down to the city to cure him of TB. The Inuit becomes a warrior in Flying Fortresses, but never reintegrates with his people's land or life. We meet him begging.

People who lose their place become indigent and mendicant. They wander in the creases in the map of civilisation. Like cowboys, having no single place, they seem blessed at least in being familiar with many.

That is why we can expect to enjoy the work of the geographer Tim Cresswell, to be featured at the IBG's conference. His paper is called "Encoding the mobile body: the construction of the tramp". Its inclusion among many others which speak such language shows how far geography has come.

Logaston Press: Little Logaston, Woonton Almeley, Herefordshire HR3 6QH; Reaktion Books, 11 Rathbone Place, London W1P 1DE; John Wiley, 01243 779777; Cinema Club, from HMV Direct 0990 334578.

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