Jonathan Meades: Which land is my land? This land is your land ... etc

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Look! There' s Great Yews and the gallops, I think.

Look! There' s Great Yews and the gallops, I think. That's surely Homington which, as a tiny child, I called Somming – so my mother never ceased to tell me. And that tache, no larger than this fleck of ash, could that be the house beside the Ebble she once longed to buy? Perhaps. Which is Ogdens? Where is Abbots Well? I'll bet if we go this way we can find the Larmer Tree Gardens.

This thing I'm gaping at is called England: The Photographic Atlas. It comprises some 750 pages of photographs taken from just over a mile high and reproduced in a variety of scales. It is a bewilderingly ambitious endeavour, a technical triumph, and very heavy indeed. There was never a time when I didn't pore over maps. My earliest ambition was to be a cartographer, to work for the Ordnance Survey in Southampton. Because I know the country south of Salisbury better than any other part of rural Britain, it is to there that I first turn. The symbols go to work as recollective triggers. I relish the formulaic abstractions, the chiaroscuro of the hachures, the zebra-print of the steep coombes' contour lines, the shorthand for deciduous and indeciduous, for reedbeds and bogs (of which the New Forest possesses an abundance).

Over the years the Ordnance Survey's symbols have become simpler and less arcane. Nonetheless, this user-friendliness doesn't detract from the fact a map is both hermetic reality and reductive code. A map exists as an object in its own right and as a useful instrument. This photographic atlas isn't a map. This project blacks out Wales and Scotland so that Shropshire and Northumberland seem to perch on the edge of the world. It is hardly a country of extremes. Most other country's foothills are our mountains. Many other country's ponds are our lakes. Wilderness is practically non-existent. England is various, but within a straitened gamut of scapes. The Photographic Atlas has the effect of further narrowing that gamut and of homogenising the country. The same spectrum, the same field systems are apparently to be found everywhere.

Hills are flattened. Places elide with each other. Entire counties are indistinguishable without the aid of a map. This is doubtless due to our being familiar with a bird's eye view only through the mediation of maps. And that mediation is an artifice, an act of cartographic anti-naturalism whose tendency is hyperbolic: the OS's England is a more exciting place than an aerial camera's. Besides which, the OS's patterns mean something, while the Photographic Atlas's are those of an overliteral cosmic patchworker trying to break into the camouflage business. Neither camera nor computer-generated cartography sets out to create a fiction, but both inevitably do and the latter, with the incomparable advantage of greater human intervention, thus creates the more beguiling.

The Photographic Atlas is land-art. Land, on the cover of This England, "Britain's Loveliest Magazine" (£4, quarterly), is duly prefixed "green and pleasant". It "guards the nation's values and traditions" which include the freedom to be a beefeater, to make walking sticks as a hobby, designate Metric Martyrs, put the pride back into your British Passport, to display a Patriot's Pack of anti-euro stickers in your Triumph Toledo (dodgy name, that) and – presumably – to wear head-to-toe beige with a polyester tie bearing your county' s coat of arms and to read prose which might grace a National Trust tea towel. This is evidently the Little Englander's house journal. The edition I was sent the other day included 45 representations of either the Union flag or the flag of St George in its 82 picturesque, xenophobic pages.

Harmless? Probably: the blood and soil sentiments that are expressed are parenthetical, dilute. Artless? Surely: and that is what makes it so true to Little England. The bravura, invention and rigour which inform both the OS and the Photographic Atlas are quite missing. The magazine is unmistakeably the voice of its readers, and those readers feel disenfranchised. They hang on to the illusion of an England which if ever it existed was in the work of Arthur Mee, Artless and – to use a neat phrase of Kenneth Rexroth's on the work of Woody Guthrie – "the organised social lie". And that, I guarantee you, is the only time you'll find Woody Guthrie anywhere near This England.

Comments