Living the layers in other peoples’ maps of Britain

Maps: I don’t need to begin by considering that they can be as misleading as educational, as disruptive as directional. They structure our everyday lives, delineate our national identities, and gives us a bird’s eye view for everywhere we are yet to visit. They also dictate our movement, inform social division and create (to say the least) ambiguity between nations.

Rainfall Radar Map layer - Met Office UK

Rainfall Radar Map layer – Met Office UK

Britain now looks at its own map with a comb of such fine teeth that people smart with its pinprick. Statistics on the electoral patterns of British EU referendum voters render the original question less important than the shock of its implications for British society. Those most comfortable with their politics, education, finances and social standing have reacted with trauma to the realisation that their ‘knowing best’ does not wash with most people exercising their democratic right to ‘know’. The press abounds with the protest voices of those communities once labelled ‘marginalised’ – retrieving the title ‘majority’.

Maps depict this trauma with different colours, boundaries, graphics and comparisons for in/out, Labour/not Labour, poor/rich, young/old, uneducated/degree’d, ethnic/not ethnic. They inform us about where and why people think differently, they also inform the continuance of those differences by embedding them in public discourse and collective memory. But do they remind us that our physical location in Britain is not the only boundary between us and other ‘types’ of British voters?

These maps, a means by which we quite rightly try to interpret a national ‘shock’, dupe many into thinking that they know what life is like in other parts of the country. It is impossible to expect everyone to have been everywhere. But in the least to think beyond the borders of a statistically analysed place name gives people’s lives and thoughts back to them; their views and votes become more than part of a linear and formulaic explanation for this messy crisis.

Equally, if you are able to point at those places on a map and discuss the types of people who live there, then they also imagine a world beyond their place on a map and point at you too. I recently read about a Cold War Soviet enterprise to map overseas nations in such detail that cartographers annotated, calculated and sited locations right down to ‘the load-bearing capacity of bridges’.

A 1980 Soviet map of San Diego naval facilities (left) compared with a US

A 1980 Soviet map of San Diego naval facilities (left) compared with a US

Delving further into an ongoing research project that revives these maps from obscurity in the British context, I realised that beyond the obvious military and strategic potential of such detailed maps, the Soviet state was developing for a vision of what invasion would actually feel like, when the time came, to march and drive troops through the streets of invaded territories. It might be argued, that is classic colonialist cartography: a map with which to conquer, and doubtless the aim. But it also envisaged Russian troops being alive and responding to those new spaces: the maps seem so personal despite their incisively operational nature.

In the oral histories that I collect in my research on postwar Britain 1945 to 1962, I hear time and again memories that move beyond borders – not simply physical, but psychic. People moved so much in the flux of war, employment, marriage, and just living, within postwar UK, that I have decided to keep my own map of the places named in their interviews. But above and beyond this is another layer I will put on that map: the place names of unvisited locations, heard in the news, told about by teachers, remembered by mothers, fathers, grandparents, sites of friends’ relocations: the maps of their minds moving through the landscape.

I’m not doing this for anyone else, it will not be part of the thesis. My purpose in noting this layer of physical and mental journey onto a world map, is to remind me – and keep on reminding me – that the ‘ordinary’ people’s lives that I record and interpret were part of a movement in their own time. Sometimes I want to live the layers in their maps myself so as to get closer to the broader shifts and forgotten hiccups of British society back then.

At this moment, the strength of UK cartographers lies in those who are imagining a beyond on their maps that is contradictory to what many of the statisticians expected to analyse.







1 thought on “Living the layers in other peoples’ maps of Britain

  1. Pingback: More than meteorological pressures. Cold war maps and civil defence experiences | immaterialisms

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