Used maps

In my 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 a 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.

Favourite Thinkers VI: Michael Chabon

Is a blog, which this is, by an academic, which I am, necessarily an ‘academic blog’? I’m not sure, and I kind of hope not.

Anyway, I came across this little essay by Michael Chabon, on why dreams are over-rated. It’s typical of how he writes about grand things by locating them in the mundane stream of ordinary living. Chabon has accidentally become one my favourite thinkers recently, even though I have only ever read one of his books – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, obviously, almost a quarter of a century ago (I keep trying to read Wonderboys, and we have a couple of his other novels kicking around the house, but they are so thick it’s off-putting).

But his non-fiction is great. He has a collection of ‘criticism’, Maps and Legends, which is  all about being a fan of genre fiction, and how all literature is really genre fiction, that I picked up in a wonderful book shop in Greenwich village a couple of years ago. This was shortly after the film adaptation of The Road had been released, and lots of the discussion about it presumed it was an allegory for environmental catastrophe. Chabon’s essay, written before the film, puts the novel into the perspective of the whole sweep of Cormac McCarthy’s work, and specifically, presents it as working the line between two genres, those of epic and horror.

The horror, for Chabon, derives from the way in which The Road works as “a testament to the abyss of a parent’s greatest fears”:

“The fear of leaving your child alone, of dying before your child has reached adulthood and learned to work the mechanisms and face the dangers of the world, or found a new partner to face them with”.

And some other fears too. I liked this account not least because it captured something of my own experience of reading the novel (I haven’t been able to find time, or face up, to watching the film) – it really did interpellate me as a parent, provoked a series of anxieties that I don’t think it would have done before then.

More lightheartedly, the other collection of Chabon’s that I have read, more recently, is Manhood for Amateurs, a book about being a dad, husband, boyfriend, son, and other assorted manly roles. It sounds like one of those ‘guides to being a dad’ books, I know, but it really isn’t. I bought it for 1.99 at The Works in Swindon’s Outlet Village (second best bookshop in town, in the best public space). It contains a series of little pieces on all sorts of topics, some of which don’t quite translate for an American context, some of which do – a wonderful account of the guilt inducing struggle to manage the mountain of pictures and drawings that one’s children bring home every day from nursery or school without succumbing to the sense that you are destroying the archive of your, and their, future memories; why the introduction of human mini-figures by Lego was indicative of a larger shift in contemporary toy culture that shrinks the scope of the imagination (it’s more fun than that makes it sound); the importance of pockets in men’s lives, and the difficulties of finding appropriate bags-which-are-not-purses – and the search for the perfect “murse”.

Chabon also writes abuot how he suffers from the ‘delusion’  that, despite knowing he’ll never see grandparents again, or dead dogs, or 1976, that he will return to these times and places and people sometime in the future:

“always lurking somewhere in the back of my mind is the unshakeable, even foundational knowledge – for which certainty is too conscious a term – that at some unspecified future date, by unspecified means, I will return to those people and to those locales. That I am going back”.

Again, this strikes a chord with me, it’s a constant feature of how I process memories. So does Chabon’s wider point about the delusion of yearning for the return of ‘normal time’ – a time in life when it seems that the rhythm of everyday life is not interrupted or imperilled by rain pouring through the bedroom ceiling, cats with urinary tract infections, children with conjunctivitis, having to look after the neighbours chickens.

Anyway, I have nothing profound to say about any of this, other than to recommend Chabon’s writing on the ordinary aspects of growing up and growing old.