"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

16 June 2016


The freedom that maps bestow to wander at leisure across the nation has granted Ordnance Survey's maps in particular an affectionate place in the hearts of map-readers across centuries. The abundance of bird's-eye views in poetry, fiction and art testifies to a creative, active, imaginative relationship between the map-reader and their charts. These types of maps have appeared in literature as assertions of land ownership, patriotism and colonialism: Lear's "division of the kingdom" is executed on a map, and Heart of Darkness's Marlow entertains a "passion for maps", particularly a "large shining map [of Africa], marked with all the colours of a rainbow". Even in a satnav world, the tactility of paper maps punctuates modern poetry. Moniza Alvi depicts a woman "rub[bing] her face/ against a map of the world" or "roll[ing] like a map". Matthew Francis writes affectionately of "a mud-spattered map already separated / by too much folding into its nine panels". Paul Muldoon's "The Old Country" is nostalgic for a time when "Every glove compartment held a manual / and a map of the roads, major and minor".

The conventions and aesthetics of paper maps also inspire imaginative responses, from poetry (Nigel Forde's "Conventional Signs" laments the failure of OS map symbols to convey the individual character of places) to modern mappae mundi, such as Grayson Perry's Map of Nowhere. The imaginative freedom granted by the bird's-eye view is obvious in the joy many writers and artists find in constructing maps of fantasy locations, from William Blake's "Corrected & Revised Map of the Country of Allestone" in 1806 to Tolkien's maps of Middle-Earth.

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