The Weasel: Around the world in a day

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The Independent Online

Brrrr! Bit brass monkeys, isn't it? Mind you, it's a dashed sight nippier where I am, hovering over the 3,807-metre Valkyrie Dome. This Wagnerian eminence is in the heart of Queen Maud Land around 600 miles from the Crown Prince Olav Coast fringing King Haaken VII Sea. Not far away, there is Kaiser Wilhelm II Land, Princess Elizabeth Land (it might be unchivalrous to reveal that it was named after HM in 1931), Roosevelt Plateau, and the snappily named King Leopold & Queen Astrid Coast. As more adventurous readers will recognise, these majestic monikers apply to patches of chilly wasteland. I am peering at Antarctica or, to be more precise, Plate 122 of the 12th edition of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, which reveals that the icy continent has been sliced up like a cake by various nation states, who have deposited the names of their rulers like graffiti carved on an ancient monument. Sadly, the Atlas omits a name in the French wedge that is the geographical equivalent of a Gallic shrug: Pourquoi Pas Point.

But pretty much everything else is in the work that claims to be "The Greatest Book on Earth". Moving to sunnier climes, we can find trousers (Jodhpur, Rajasthan), tinned meat (Fray Bentos, Uruguay), emotions (Mount Misery, Gibraltar), insects (Golfo de los Mosquitos, Panama) and a Fifties radio quiz (Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, previously known as Hot Springs). However, I doubt if Batman, a province of eastern Turkey, is connected with the caped crusader.

From Greenland's icy mountains (Mont Forel, 3,360 metres) to India's coral strand (Mamallapuram, Tamilnadu), the world is here, but you must turn to plate 34 for The World, an archipelago of 300 artificial islands constructed off the coast of Dubai that appears in the Atlas for the first time. At a scale of 1: 2,500,000, The World doesn't look much like the world, but a trio of tiny amorphous blobs. Still, if that's what the Atlas people say it looks like, my money is on them. If they can't draw The World, who can?

My scrutiny of the Atlas was prompted by a smaller book on the same topic. Whatever Happened to Tanganyika by Henry Campbell (Portico, £9.99) explores passé place names that remain fixures in the minds of those of a certain age. In fact, the gazetteer of The Times Atlas still includes Tanganyika ("see Tanzania") and, for that matter, Nyasaland ("see Malawi"), but the political incorrectness of my geography became apparent as I flipped through the vast pages. Did you know that Tripoli has become the more dashing Tarabalus or that Cairo is now hidden behind the veil of Al Qahirah? The lovely Alexandria has transmuted into El Iskandariyah.

Apparently, the new edition includes 3,500 name changes. Ulan Bator is still identifiable as Ulaanbaator, but I wouldn't have had the faintest idea concerning the whereabouts of Chennai (Madras) and even Dubayy is a bit of a head-scratcher (Dubai). Though I've never written Burma on an envelope as either address or acronym (Be Undressed Ready My Angel), it came as a surprise to learn that its military government now refers to the country as Myanmar (Make Yourself Available Now My Ardent Ravisher). Its largest city has swapped the evocative Rangoon for the less pleasing Yangon. Happily, Mandalay, which inspired Kipling but not Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca lived at Manderley), is still Mandalay. I'm particularly gratified that The Times Atlas sticks to the old name of the provincial capital Pegu rather than its less euphonious replacement. This distant spot is famous around the world, at least to cocktail lovers, due to the Pegu Club, a classic potion from the colonial era (6 parts gin, 2 parts Cointreau, 3 parts lime juice, 2 dashes Angostura, shake with ice and strain). I hope we won't have to start calling it the Bago Club.

Thanks to Henry Campbell, I discovered that there are two Normals (Illinois and Alabama) and one Oblong (Illinois) in The Times Atlas, though other American oddities are omitted. It prefers the old appellation for Ismay, Montana, despite the residents' decision to change the name to Joe, in tribute to American football star Joe Montana. The atlas does not find space for Mr Campbell's favourite Humptulips (pop. 216) in Washington State though it includes the even better Humpty Doo in Australia's Northern Territory. According to Wikipedia, the name is either aboriginal or derives from a colloquialism for "everything done wrong".

For a mental escape from England, I cannot recommend a flight through the pages of The Times Atlas too highly. You need neither passport nor air ticket, though you will probably have to leave your armchair since the book weighs a lap-crushing 5.8 kilos. Not that the experience comes entirely free of charge. While the 6th edition, which I bought in 1983, cost £45, the 12th edition has a cover price of £150. And they say the world is getting smaller.