Simon Garfield | "You have to begin with really good human stories, and then broaden out"

Simon Garfield | "You have to begin with really good human stories, and then broaden out"

In the tradition of William Morris’ advice to “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”, Simon Garfield’s London hallway is lined with Tube maps. Not those of the familiar Harry Beck “circuit” design, but the schemes which came before it, and which he lovingly collects. “The first map I remember using was the London Underground map. I saw it every day when I went to school and my interest grew from there.”

Garfield is just my type of non-fiction writer; the kind where you never know quite what subject they are going to alight on next. He has written books on AIDS, the colour mauve, Radio 1, wrestling, the early days of railways, the Mass Observation project and, of course, typefaces. Given his early enthusiasm for maps, it feels only natural that he should have turned to the subject for his latest book: On the Map (Profile). But actually the idea originated with Bill Shinker at Gotham Books, Garfield’s US publisher. “He said, why don’t you do a book on maps? And I thought, fantastic, because I just knew it was right.”

Taking a subject and running with it is something that Garfield has been doing since his time as a feature writer for the Observer and Independent. But with his journalism, he always felt there was more to say. “Even if I’d done a big piece I was really happy with, I often felt that I hadn’t the time or space to get to the bottom of things.” Though he now has the luxury of writing at greater length, Garfield’s instinct for a good story remains. “All my books have been based on narrative. You have to begin with really good human stories, and then broaden out. It’s the only way you can engage people who don’t know much about a subject. On the Map has maps at its core, but the book was also an excuse to tell 40 great stories, about Ptolemy for example, and Phyllis Pearsall (the inventor of the London A–Z); and Churchill’s Map Room. Even when I went to visit Google Maps, I knew I had to talk to the man who brought the original concept of Google Earth to the company”.

Women can read maps

On the Map plots the history of maps with all their contours, from those drawn up at the Great Library of Alexandria in the 4th century BC from the testimonies of sailors and travellers, to the Global Positioning Systems of today, for which unmanned satellites provide the information. En route, delightful cartographic facts and anecdotes abound. We learn that California was once thought to be an island. That you can seal an old map with a piece of cotton soaked in your saliva. How the expression “in the limelight” originated when the Ordnance Survey overcame an Irish pea-souper. And that women can read maps (they just read them slightly differently is all). “Maps,” writes Garfield at the beginning of On the Map, “hold a clue as to what makes us human.” He illustrates not only how they came about, but who drew them, what they were thinking and how we use them. And if we stop using them, he seems to imply, we will lose the idea of where we’re going.

So he doesn’t use satnav then? “I use it all the time. When I’m in the car, I like to concentrate on my driving, especially when I’m on my own and following a map is difficult.” And as we all know, he says, having a human map-reader can be stressful. Garfield recently got married, and recalls an early in-car argument with his future wife over directions. “One of the great things about satnav is that hopefully it eliminates all that.” Mind you, try telling that to Robert Ziegler, the Swiss van driver whose satnav took him up a narrow mountain goat track from which he had to be winched by helicopter. I’m sure his wife was thrilled.

Such navigational disasters aside, why do we even need to bother reading maps now that we can find out exactly how to get where we want to go by merely punching in a postcode? However fascinating and beautiful maps are, surely they risk being obsolete in an age when you can travel thousands of miles without paying any attention to the route?

“It’s a fascinating debate. If kids can’t map read, they’re going to be perfectly okay. It’s not essential to life. But there is something important about being able to find your own way. We rely on others now to get us to places that previously we could find ourselves. And so we’ve stopped looking around so much. There’s actually something brilliant about getting lost and asking for directions; there’s a social aspect to it. How many connections do you miss by not asking?”

Big brother

Garfield’s visit to Google Maps in California led him to consider the worrying fact that navigational power is now concentrated in just a few hands. “Google and one or two other companies have this immense control over our ability to find locations, and the power to turn that facility off as well. And they are mapping us too, of course, through phones which allow our movements to be tracked. I’m sure Apple isn’t actually pursuing me. I’m sure it has better things to do. But the fact that it could do so is extraordinary.”

Where can we hide? Are there any blank spaces left on the world map? There are no Dark Continents now, but there are, says Garfield, a few Dark Corners. “Satellites have been everywhere. But the earth isn’t all mapped in the way that we would regard the UK as mapped. Look at Google maps of Antarctica for example. Most of it is still white.”

Even if physical maps are losing sway (they were always difficult to fold up anyway), it’s clear that for Garfield they will remain things of beauty for ever. Asked to name his “Desert Island Maps”, he picks the “typographically luxuriant” 1920s Tube map by Macdonald Gill; John Snow’s cholera map of Soho—“because it tells so many stories”—and the 17th-century Dutch maps of Willem Blaeu, “for the sheer beauty of their artistry and the craftsmanship”.

He also has a penchant for those rather rubbish sky maps you get on aeroplanes. “They are the most boring things to look at, but you can’t keep your eyes off them, can you?” Even the most primitive of maps it seems, tells us something about ourselves and our place in the world.

Book data

Publication date: 04/10/12
Formats: £16.99 HB, EB
ISBNs: 9781846685095/ 9781847658555
Rights sold: World rights
US (Gotham, USA)
Editor: Mark Ellingham
Agent: Rosemary Scoular at United Agents

Simon Garfield's Top Five:
Our Hidden Lives (2004)
Ebury, 9780091897338, £8.99
Woven tapestry of diary entries from the pivotal post-war years of 1945–1948.

Books sold: 78,000 since 2004

Just My Type (2010)
Profile, 9781846683022, £9.99
How fonts and typefaces have shaped and defined the world around us.

Books sold: 63,000 since 2010

We are at War (2005)
Ebury, 9780091903879, £6.99
Stories of ordinary people who recorded the chaos of the Second World War.

Books sold: 30,000 since 2005

Mauve (2000)
Faber, 9780571209170, 
The life of the scientific pioneer William Perkin— discoverer of mauveine.

Books sold: 22,000 since 2000

The Last Journey of William Huskisson (2002)
Faber, 9780571216086, £8.99
The tragic tale of the British statesman killed by George Stephenson’s Rocket.

Books sold: 15,000 since 2002