Map Addict, Mike Parker (2009)

British maps and their meanings entertainingly plotted across the contours of writer’s own obsession with them

Harper Collins 9780007351572 Paperback 330pp ££8.99

Around the middle of this book, Parker visits the headquarters of Ordnance Survey. As he tells it, this represents his pilgrimage to the holiest of shrines. There he meets the organisation’s ‘product manager’ who tells the author that: “there is something distinctly Enid Blyton about the Ordnance Survey. Its all very Middle England, National Trust and Radio 4.”

Exploring this perspective, and his feelings about it, is really the substance of this book.
Since early adolescence, Parker has obsessed with the 1:50,000 series, shoplifting bagfuls of them from bookshops in his native west midlands. He obsesses about their design, their detail, what they show, and what they exclude. He frets throughout, however, that there is, at heart, something irredeemably naff about such a fascination. By the end, he has turned self-effacement into an apparently mature acceptance of who he is, and the inevitable onset of middle age.

It is a thoroughly enjoyable book – particularly if you have even a modest interest in matters cartographic, a disposition common among cyclists. Tracing the course of his own fascination with the Landranger series, Parker serves up a potted history of OS, Bartholomews and A to Z. He considers the challenges to paper mapping posed by GPS as well as the erotic potential of topography and its representation.

The form is Hornbyesque, but the execution is very capable. He is enquiring, perceptive and writes appealingly. Yoking together personal memoir with a reasonably serious discussion of maps and their place in our lives certainly makes this a more enjoyable read than a simple academic discussion of the same issues. There is also something as British as the landscape that he so clearly loves about Parker’s implicit appeal not to take him too seriously. He is sending himself up before we have the chance.

Enjoyable as the book is, I worry at the apparent lack of confidence at its core. Maps are everywhere at the moment. Parker himself presented a 10-part series on the subject on Radio 4. And BBC 4 has just screened three one-hour programmes on the subject presented by Professor Jerry Brotton. With this level of interest – at least from BBC commissioning editors – might not the memoir of a map addict be cast in a more heroic light?

TD April 10

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