I can’t remember how I came across this book, but I do recall a great desire to read it as soon as I saw it. I have long loved maps and could spend ages just perusing them for all their detail. My love is for ordnance survey (OS), and when I went on holiday in 2010 to the Alps I found the maps they provided to be substandard and was really missing an OS equivalent. The main reason for this was that instead of putting on there all the paths that existed, the only paths that were put on the map were the recommended ones. So if you knew you were looking to go left at a fork in a path half a kilometre ahead, then you might well be forgiven for taking the left route when you come to a fork half a kilometre ahead. But no, the first left turn is not a recommended route and so wasn’t on the map. It was only when you go down the route for about a mile that you realise why it is not a recommended route.
So anyway, with that aside, I thought it would be interesting to read a book by someone with the same kind of passion as me. However, I was wholly unprepared for the level of enthusiasm that Parker has for his subject matter. He begins with a little autobiography where he describes how, as a child he used to initially save up to buy OS Landranger maps and even steal them on occasions. His ambition was to obtain all the maps for the whole of Britain. This is certainly a long way beyond my level of enthusiasm; indeed, I would expect very few readers would have such a level of fanaticism as is on display here.
The book encompasses a wide range of topics, from the history of the OS, the actual geography of the land, the politics of what goes into a map and what is excluded, etc. All through it, however, there is an exuberant sense of old fashioned British eccentricity. The first 200 pages are excellent and I would heartily recommend to anyone who has planned out a walk in their head, using a map, before setting foot outside the front door.
The latter half of the book goes even more esoteric and with it, some of the quality is lost. While there is a very interesting interlude about war and European politics, Parker then goes off on a tangent about the influence of christianity on maps and the author’s own mild paganism. This is certainly the low point of the book, with some lackadaisical history and a failure to understand the purpose of ancient maps; they were never meant to be navigational tools, and anyone who used them as such would never have been able, say, to trek to the crusades. Such sloppiness is epitomised when the author writes “the suppression of scientific understanding by ultra-zealous christianity began in about the fourth century AD, and it is something we are still struggling with seventeen centuries later.” As one might expect, there is no reference or firm supporting evidence given to back up this assertion.
The last couple of chapters are slightly more redeeming than the previous couple, but by the end I was just looking forward to finishing the book. Overall, read it for the first 200 pages, but you needn’t bother with the rest.