Saturday, 3 September 2011

Mental Mapping

Whenever I travel I have a map of the world in my mind’s eye: so, if I were travelling northwards of my start point, I would be moving up the map; if southwards I would be moving down; and, if east or west, across it. I don’t think this is unusual (apart from the fact that I have recently started to worry about whether I should be using the Mercator or the Peters projection).

I came down from Manchester to London to stay for a few weeks, during which time my sister visited, insisting that she had come up to London from Lincolnshire; those who are familiar with England’s geography will soon spot the anomaly. I happen to know that she is not geographically challenged, that she came by car and was guided by a sat-nav map. So what is going on in her mind’s eye? Does she perceive London to be in a different direction or, perhaps, a different dimension? Has our capital city come to rest on the same elevated plane as Oxford and Cambridge universities which, according to their convention, are always up no matter what your direction of approach?

Those who have lived in London (and I am one) will be familiar with the notion that its inhabitants believe themselves to be at the centre of all that matters and that every other place in the U.K. is provincial - in the most demeaning sense of the word. But I have now lived long enough in Manchester to have acquired a Northerly perspective which makes me keen to subvert such a view and to promote Manchester to the premier league of British cultural achievements other than football. I take my opportunities whenever I can: as in, for example, an after-dinner discussion on the outbreak of rioting which, a few weeks ago, was big news. One of the Londoners present recalled hearing that there had been a similar (but minor) disturbance in one of the provinces – was it Manchester? “Yes”, I said “but it was a mere shadow of the real outbreak back in 1819 when 80,000 Mancunians turned out to demand the reform of parliamentary representation”. There was, of course, no riposte to this famous illustration of Northerners’ advanced political views and zealous pursuit of social reform for the benefit of the majority of citizens in England.

Flushed with success and confident of having earned some respect for the prowess of lowly provincials- I was brought back down to earth later when, in a packed Tube-station elevator, I took the initiative to act as operator (having read the instruction posted on the wall) but pressed the ‘alarm’ button instead of the ‘ascend’ button. A bell sounded, the door froze in the open position and a collective sigh of despair went up around me. My public admission of guilt and my bluff, Northern apology did nothing to advance my cause.

Maybe it’s a hopeless cause anyway. Locating Manchester on a map is a simple question of reading the grid reference. Putting Manchester on the map proves to be more difficult. The first Londoner I ever knew was from Brick Lane and he told me that, for him, ‘up North’ meant Hackney. Some years later, in Portsmouth, I met a bloke who referred to the Isle of Wight as being ‘down South’.

Up, down or sideways everyone’s reading of the map centres on their own location: everywhere else is of secondary importance. Grid references and sat-nav can help you get to them physically but cartography is only one tool in the box when it comes to going places.

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