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From the opium trade to gay London

At the British Library, the 20th century is unfolded in maps

Simon Garfield | November 12th 2014

As an author, there’s always one interview question you can never answer well enough. For me, after writing a book about the history of maps two years ago, the question was always a variation on, “What have you got against Google Maps?” The correct answer was, “Nothing, I use them all the time,” but I tried to offer fuller explanations of the beauty and romance of paper maps, and the ability to find one’s way home when the mobile runs out of charge. I always wished I could show rather than tell.

And now, finally, I can. A new, large-format book from the British Library, written by the British Library curator Tom Harper and the antiquarian-map dealer Tim Bryars, shows you all you need to know about the power of maps to inform, entertain and induce wonder. “A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps” ranges all over the place in the best possible way—from the Edwardian drug-trade routes of 1908 to the map of gay London in 1982, and from the battle of Amritsar in 1919 to the security forces’ tribal maps of Belfast in 1990. But what I really like about it is that it demonstrates the vivid ability of maps to portray human achievement and folly like nothing else on earth.

Maps are the most direct method we have of telling big stories on a single page. Nothing tells you as much about a country’s shifting political landscape after an election than a map turning progressively red or blue. Few documents can speak of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s as eloquently as the frantically busy poster map made by the Sarajevo agency FAMA International. And nothing illustrates a perilous military campaign better than the thin red lines of German trenches at the Somme, drawn on a map—perhaps with optimism—in England in June 1916. As if further demonstration were needed, Bryars and Harper take a handful of fictional creations (Orwell’s “1984”, Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh”), and stop just short of suggesting that all the text is rendered superfluous by the illustrations of E.H. Shepard’s Hundred Acre Wood and endpapers showing Middle Earth. 

That’s another thing about paper maps: they offer a personality and character absent from almost all pixellated cartography. The draftsmanship is usually the work of one person beavering alone, an authority invested with heavy responsibility (in the case of Tolkien, the map was sketched by his son Christopher). Not that we should believe everything we see: the cartographer may also be a bald propagandist, as evidenced in the depiction of Churchill as a venal octopus in a map issued by occupied Vichy France in 1942; or the pro-British postcard maps of the Falklands of 1982, which matched a photo of a smiling Margaret Thatcher with an image of Captain Cook’s Resolution sailing gallantly into Antarctic waters in 1774.

The most depressing map in this whole collection appeared in 1980. This is the Happy Eater Great Britain Route Planner, a point-to-point guide to the now defunct family-fry-up mecca. The Happy Eaters were once the A-road’s answer to the motorway service station, and the accompanying grid advertises happy times in Lamberhurst on the A21 in Sussex, and at Hogs Back on the A31 in Surrey. It was as if one could focus one’s entire holiday or business life on motoring from one fried slice to another. It’s hard to blame a map for the terrible reputation British food carried in the 1970s and 1980s, but this one didn’t help.

Collectively, there are bigger stories to tell. One would expect the development of 20th-century mapping to be one of increasing sophistication and finesse, but often the opposite is true. The book ends with a cartoon map of “Continental Europe” as perceived by Viz magazine—a xenophobic, bigoted, stereotyped and of course hilarious depiction of Johnny Foreigner in all his ungainly and often naked grandeur. This mirrors one peculiar cartographic feature of the present century too: an online boom of scanned hand-drawn maps, a resurgence of the personal, and a backlash against the digital notion that we may all be reduced to grids and enabled locations on smartphones. We are not uniform or homogeneous, and we don’t want our mapping that way either.

Map-heads may contest the authors’ choices. Bryars and Harper could have selected 100 different maps to tell another social and political history altogether. Where are Grayson Perry’s rampaging social tapestries, for instance, or the London A-Z? But that’s the true value of old maps in the modern age: the stories abound. Unfold anything cartographic, from a napkin to an atlas, and you get rather more than directions. Google will get you to your destination, but what will you bring with you when you arrive?

A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps is out now

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