Saturday, 26 September 2009

The dullest map square in Britain

According to Mike Parker, author of the recent book Map Addict, the most boring 1x1km map square out of the 320,000 on the 1:50,000 Landranger series is SE 8322, just south of Ousefleet, between Goole and Hull. Here it is on the OS website:

‘On the map,’ Parker writes, ‘it contains absolutely nothing, save for a pylon line grazing one corner. In the flesh, it is one of those big-sky wildernesses that leave you feeling inches high, a land of ploughed black clods, mist and crows.’

I read quite a lot about maps for the book on roads, and ended up using hardly any of it. All maps betray the prejudices and blind spots of their creators. Early maps of uncharted territories were works of art and imagination as much as science, with drawings of monsters, dragons and pygmies substituting for topographical detail. Or as Jonathan Swift put: ‘So Geographers in Afric' maps / With savage pictures fill their gaps / And o’er uninhabitable downs / Place elephants for want of towns.’ Francis Galton (the man who devised the first weather map in The Times in 1875) also drew a beauty map of Britain which claimed to map the attractiveness of its female inhabitants. London contained the prettiest, Aberdeen the ugliest.

This has also put me in mind of the artist Richard Dedomenici’s work, ‘Nail Salon Belt’, which ‘discovers’ a nail salon belt surrounding London which is protecting its satellite towns from metropolitan encroachment:

And I also liked this visit to an imaginary place, Argleton, which you can find on Google maps but nowhere else:

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

No need to reply

I wrote this article, ‘Today's cultish interactivity is a poor substitute for a proper public sphere’, for the Guardian earlier this month:

When historians draw a line around the first decade of this century, they will measure the traffic in text messages, wade through the “have your say” sections on online newspapers, and count the membership of social networking sites - and they will surely conclude that this has been the dawning of the age of interactivity. Never before have those with media and political power professed themselves to be so interested in our opinions; never before have we been able to pass on our thoughts so instantly to “friends” and “followers”, who may of course be total strangers. This isn’t simply a technological revolution. It is a cultural and emotional one, underpinned by a belief that constantly interacting with others is an inherently worthwhile activity. The owner of this year’s steepest adoption curve, Twitter, is interactivity in its purest form - “what I am doing now” condensed into a text message.

Ten years ago, when the internet was virtually steam-powered, the American academic John Durham Peters wrote a prophetic book called Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Peters argued that the ideal of interactivity, the search for instantaneous contact with others, had a long and fraught history in western culture. He traced it back to St Augustine, for whom the epitome of perfect communication was the angel, a word derived from the Greek for “messenger”. Unlike us flawed mortals, who might be prone to heretical interpretations of the Bible if left to read it on our own and use our unreliable brains, angels could intuit the will of God directly and communicate it to others instantly.

The aim of modern media, Peters argued, has been to “mimic the angels by mechanical or electronic means”. In the 19th century new inventions like telegraphy, the telephone and the phonograph had a near-mystical aura. They were linked in the public mind with the Victorian vogue for mesmerism and telepathy, because they too seemed to fulfil the dream of angelic contact, of pure and direct communication, of breaking down the painful distance between self and other. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” cautioned Henry Thoreau in Walden, “but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing to communicate.” We behaved, Thoreau wrote, “as if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly”. Today’s frantically texting, micro-blogging culture seems to be part of this long and futile search for shared consciousness. The boast of the social networking sites is that they will allow us to “stay connected” wherever we are, to defeat our tiresome physical and psychological distance from each other through technology.

It isn’t only in cyberspace. In real public spaces the people who run our lives are forever trying to converse with us, in a highly colloquial, intimate tone which has none of the formality we used to associate with official communications. The writer and humorist Paul Jennings once wrote about how angry his father used to get at the words printed on his ration book: “Your ration book”. “Whose do they suppose I think it is if it’s got my name on it?” he would say. These days he would be angry all the time - at those nagging dot-matrix display boards on motorways (“Have you got enough fuel?”), the sign at the head of the queue in my local bank that says “Nearly there: thanks for waiting”, and the faux-matey copy printed on crisp packets and smoothie bottles, saying things like “We think this flavour rocks” or “Once opened consume within four days or we’ll come round and get you”.

As someone who makes a living out of teaching and writing, I do find the idea of interactivity appealing. If only I could commune with others instantly, I would never again endure the pain of being unread, ignored or misunderstood. How I would love to be one of Star Trek’s Vulcans, those modern versions of Augustine’s angels who can meld their minds with others; then, instead of struggling over this article, I could simply tip the contents of my brain into yours.

But part of me also feels that there is something control-freakish about the desire for perfectly reciprocal communication. It takes too little account of human individuality and uniqueness. “Billions of consciousnesses silt history full, and every one of them the centre of the universe,” wrote the late John Updike in his memoirs. “What can we do in the face of this unthinkable truth but scream or take refuge in God?” We could spend our whole lives texting but there will always be part of us that is infinitely remote.

I wonder if one reason that so much discussion on the blogosphere deteriorates into the humourless taking and giving of offence is that people assume the words printed on the screen are aimed at them personally. In a culture which values interactivity, it makes a sort of sense to treat every form of communication like a text message. But not every public statement requires, or merits, a response. All language is a leap into the dark, with no certainty that we will ever be understood or even heard. Books get remaindered, blogs remain unread, and tweets fall on deaf ears. If it were easy to interact with others, no great literature would ever be written. Shakespeare’s sonnets are unsent letters, addressed to unnamed and shadowy people, or simply spoken into the air and to eternity.

I am not denying that online interaction brings pleasure and convenience to millions, and occasionally to me. What makes me uneasy is the cult of interactivity as an end in itself, the pursuit of better bandwidth as the route to a more liberated, democratic public sphere in which everyone will be instantly available to everyone else. In reality, as Peters argued, we only want that kind of intimate contact with family and friends. In more public contexts, such as the marketplace or the workplace, we often just want to be treated fairly and justly, the same as everyone else - which means impersonally and anonymously.

A proper public sphere is collectively owned and more than the sum total of lots of individual interactions. Why do so many of us love the strange poetry of the shipping forecast? Perhaps because it adheres to the literal sense of the word “broadcast”, which radio borrowed from the farmer’s term for scattering seeds over a wide surface. The shipping forecast is broadcast to millions of people who, since they are not on ships, are not its intended audience. For them it has become a comforting, collective ritual which simply forms part of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the “cumulative intelligence of the universe”. It does not invite us to email or text our feedback; it does not care what any of us think as individuals. And so it belongs to us all.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

A single oak tree

Everyday hats off to the artist Stephen Taylor, who spent two whole years in a wheat field in East Anglia painting the same oak tree in different lights and weathers. You can see some of his work at:

I was introduced to Taylor’s work by Alain de Botton’s book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, which has this to say about it:

‘Our exertions generally find no enduring physical correlatives. We are diluted in gigantic intangible collective projects, which leave us wondering what we did last year and, more profoundly, where we have gone and quite what we have amounted to. We confront our lost energies in the pathos of the retirement party.

‘How different everything is for the craftsman who transforms a part of the world with his own hands, who can see his work as emanating from his being and can step back at the end of a day or lifetime and point to an object – whether a square of canvas, a chair or a clay jug – and see it as a stable repository of his skills and an accurate record of his years, and hence feel collected together in one place, rather than strung out across projects which long ago evaporated into nothing one could hold or see.’

I am filled with the desire to drive all the way down to East Anglia and buy one of these beautiful paintings. But given that there are no prices on any of them, I suspect my bank balance would violently disagree with me.

De Botton’s book, btw, is wise and funny. It ends with this persuasive defence of the meaninglessness of work:

‘The impulse to exaggerate the significance of what we are doing, far from being an intellectual error, is really life itself through coursing through us … To see ourselves as the centre of the universe and the present time as the summit of history, to view our upcoming meetings as being of overwhelming significance, to neglect the lessons of cemeteries, to read only sparingly, to feel the pressure of deadlines, to snap at colleagues, to make our way through conference agendas marked “11:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.: coffee break”, to behave heedlessly and then greedily and then to combust in battle – maybe all of this, in the end, is working wisdom. It is paying death too much respect to prepare for it with sage prescriptions … let death find us as we are building up our matchstick protests against its waves.’

This is another matchstick protest written to deadline, a short piece about the Birmingham Bull Ring:

Mundane quote for the day: ‘All great civilisations are based on parochialism. To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields - these are as much as a man can fully experience.’ – Patrick Kavanagh

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

History by numbers

A little piece I wrote for The Times last week (on 9.9.09) about the 999 number - a subject about which, before writing this piece, I knew only slightly more than sod all ...

The Times played a key role in the birth of 999. The emergency number owes its existence to a fire on November 10, 1935, which swept through a house in Wimpole Street, in the West End of London, killing five women. Norman Macdonald, a dentist living in the house opposite, tried to ring the fire brigade and was so outraged at being held in a queue by the telephone exchange that he wrote to The Times.

In response to Macdonald's letter and the ensuing public outcry, the Government set up a committee to establish a dedicated emergency service. The 999 number was chosen because, at a time when there were only three million home telephones, most people would be calling from coin-operated red telephone boxes. It was easy to customise these to allow free use of the number 9 on the rotary dial.

On June 30, 1937 the Assistant Postmaster General, Sir Walter Womersley, told the House of Commons that the new emergency service would be trialled in London. For reasons now lost to history, MPs burst out laughing at the announcement that the number would be 999 (perhaps because, amid the gathering storm of war, it sounded like a German saying "no" three times).
The Times, however, approved of the number. "Being one third as big again as the Number of the Beast, it has its sinister significance," it declared. "All cannot be well with him who dials 999. Moreover, the figure 9 would be pretty easy for the quaking finger to find on the dial in the dark room where the householder, shivering in his pyjamas, is hoping that the exchange will hear him before the burglar does." The trial was extended to Glasgow a year later and by 1948 the whole country was covered. By 1950 the number of 999 calls had reached 80,000 a year.

Over the years, 999 has had its detractors. In recent years the number of accidental calls to the emergency services has risen sharply because 999 is easily dialled by mistake on a mobile phone - unlike numbers that use more than one digit, such as the EU standard emergency number, 112, or the American 911.

Like the Qwerty arrangement of letters on a keyboard, the 999 number is an example of what historians of technology call "path dependence" - which means that, although the initial reasons why it was adopted no longer apply (coin-operated telephones being virtually extinct), it carries on being used through the forces of habit and inertia. Unlike the MPs in 1937 who found the number so hilarious, we think of 999 instinctively - exactly what is needed in an emergency.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The magical power of rain

It’s an Indian summer outside and, professional contrarion that I am, I thought I would write a post about rain. Ever since Tacitus called Britain the land of continual rain, the wet stuff has formed part of our national imagination. There was something phlegmatic about this association of rain and the British: it was the small price we paid for our temperate climate, which was used to explain everything from our placid national character to our moderate political system. The great philosopher of rain, however, was the German critic Walter Benjamin. In one of the many gnomic statements of the Convolutes, Benjamin suggests that a characteristic feature of modernity is the ‘diminishing magical power of the rain’. The great promise of the arcades, the nineteenth-century Parisian version of a shopping mall, was that they would allow humankind at last to escape from the tyranny of the rain. Benjamin even unearths an obscure late-nineteenth-century text by Léo Claretie which imagines a Paris of the future entirely enclosed within a ‘crystal canopy’ to protect it from the rain. But this quote about a rainy day in the city hints at the overlooked utopian possibilities of rain: ‘Rain makes everything more hidden, makes days not only grey but uniform. From morning until evening, one can do the same thing – play chess, read, engage in argument – whereas sunshine, by contrast, shades the hours and discountenances the dreamer.’

What blissful hours I spent as a child examining raindrops! Now life seems too short to waste time looking at the rain.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘And why should I not choose that raindrop sliding down the windowpane? I could write a whole page, ten pages, on that raindrop; for me it will become the symbol of everyday life whilst avoiding everyday life; it will stand for time and space, or space within time; it will be the world and still only a vanishing raindrop.’ – Henri Lefebvre

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Boring people doing boring things

Since it’s Beatles week on the BBC, I thought you might like to be reminded of this enchanting sequence from the film Yellow Submarine, a psychedelic take on Liverpool and the quotidian:

John Lennon, by the way, poured scorn on Paul McCartney’s ‘novelist’ songs: ‘These stories about boring people doing boring things – being postmen and secretaries and writing home. I’m not interested in third-party songs. I like to write about me, ‘cos I know me.’

Needless to say, this blog is happy to join Ian MacDonald, author of the definitive Beatles book Revolution in the Head, in the militant pro-McCartney wing of the Beatles fan club.

Did you know that Edward Heath once praised the Beatles as ‘the salvation of the corduroy industry’? (see Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, p. 101)

And this is a piece I wrote recently for the FT weekend magazine about spending a weekend at Newport Pagnell service station. It was inspired by the genre of quotidian travel writing which emerged in France in the 1980s and 1990s and which treated routine journeys as intrepid adventures: Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop’s journey from Paris to Marseilles in a Volkswagen camper van, Jean Rolin’s adventures in the Parisian banlieues, Jacques Réda’s attempt to walk the line of the Paris meridian, and François Bon’s and François Maspero’s journeys on commuter trains. You can find my own humble effort at,dwp_uuid=a712eb94-dc2b-11da-890d-0000779e2340.html