Used maps

In our house, the scrap paper on which a five-year old practices writing out lists of the names of all her school friends and the toddler practices scribbling is, inevitably, a pile of discarded academic articles, drafts of OU courses, or research policy papers. Turn over a carefully coloured-in doodle of a princess, and there is a random page about the uses of ‘social science’ or an agenda of a meeting of some sort.

When I was growing up, the available scrap paper in our house was, oddly, a never-ending pile of what we refered to as ‘map paper’ – sheets of A3 paper, the blank undersides of detailed contour maps of all sorts of places, bits of the world I cannot even remember now. My father was a navigator in the RAF, and this was the paper he worked with, and then bought home for us to scribble, doodle, draw and take notes on (this might be a screen memory of some sort – the supply of map paper seems to have survived long after he actually left the RAF).

I’d like to be able to say that this inspired a life long interest in maps, and set me off on the course of becoming a geographer. I do really like maps. But I don’t remember the maps which were the underside of these piles of ‘map paper’. Other than a vague sense that they were either very green, or very beige in a sandy-desert kind of way.

If I could remember more of the Derrida that I must have read, I’m sure writing on the blank back pages of maps as a child would be indicative of some important symbolic moment in ‘becoming geograhical’.

Now, I find myself with a large map of Southern Rhodesia, a proper map, folded in an attic for about 40 years at least, now framed, not paper per se, it has a thick woven texture. It dates from the early 1960s, from a weird moment of British post-imperial reconfiguration, from the days of the short-lived, cynical experiment that was the Central African Federation, or, if you prefer, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. There is a whole history unwrapped by this map – fantasies of air power as a vehicle of racist settler postcolonial ‘independence’; of British military connivance with this fantasy; of the last generation of ordinary white British people to have experienced the privileges of settler colonialism; and of histories prefigured – of UDI, bush wars, or, personal histories of disappointment and resentment and return.

This is a working map – the straight lines which are visible on it are plotted by my old man, tracking routes from Livingstone to Salisbury, Livingstone to Gwelo (this is a map of a disappeared nation, mostly full of lost place names). In the margins of the map, there are calculations which he has made – I don’t understand these I should say; distance, wind-speed,weight, who knows? That these routes all emanate from Livingstone dates the map, I think, or it’s use at least, to a late moment of the Federation, 1962 or 1963, to that brief period when my family were kind-of-Zambian; before I arrived.

I like this map not only because of various family associations and their post-colonial ironies and tragedies, but because these marks left by my father are indicators of the basic point, often forgotten perhaps, that maps are primarily used as devices to help people get around.

Three uses of maps, then: as devices for navigation; as repositories of fragments of memory; or, just as spare paper.

Only problem is, where to put the framed map? It’s huge. What will visitors think, on wandering into our front room and finding this bloody great map of Southern Rhodesia on the wall? Likely to give the wrong impression, I fear. It seems destined for the ‘puter room, as my daughter calls it, the one she goes into to gather scrap paper, the discarded drafts of book chapters and agenda papers. I bet she won’t be getting any of those framed in the far distant future.

2 thoughts on “Used maps

  1. Pingback: Geographers on old maps | Progressive Geographies

  2. very sad story. maybe cut it into postcard shapes and frame three in a row? remains fragments of memory, sufficiently ‘real’ and non-military but choose the bits that are most affective?

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