Maps of the City

Maps on the page are fossils, a collective skeleton perfectly preserved in every bone, from wide spinal highways to the limbs of the suburbs, and the fine feathery impressions of alleys, courts and footpaths.

We carry living maps in heads, hearts and muscles, not  birds-eye views, like a lateral cross sections through the rock of the city,  but more often a succession of passages through a maze, experienced on the ground.

The stranger clutches paper maps or puzzles over pixels, his mind clouded, but carving a clear path as he travels. Those more familiar with the city are comfortable enough to travel by an internal compass and a mental picture, imperfect and partial, but adequate to our needs and printed with our character.

The taxi driver’s inner map is a complex instrument, finely honed, bristling with function. Images are instantly called up, routes surely plotted in graceful cascades, annotated with further Knowledge – roadworks, commercial context, religious festivals, cultural events. Alternatives coexist momentarily as ghostly possibilities before one is selected, the rest discarded, the meter started. The passenger watches the lights and facades slide past with deceptive inevitability.

A commuter’s map is a simpler beast. Home. Work. Bus stop. Tube station. Coffee source. Automatically activated at the same moment each day, the workers are sent on their way as along a fixed track, barely conscious of their journeys, living out the tasks of the day to come or just past, the abstract dances of finance, marketing, planning, targets, spinning through their minds as cars and carriages weave around them. Come the weekend, the temporarily released psyche shrinks from the same journey as from a bad dream; a different map animates the days of ease.

Most of us are social creatures – points on the map are defined by the humans we know or knew there. Painful memories are cruelly replayed on an involuntary screen at the sight of a street sign, happy memories extend a warm covering on winter days when passing a park where a sunny convivial picnic took place decades before. Our friends and associates lend their faces to the collage image a place name draws forth, so that we imagine boroughs and stations might possess those personalities themselves. Hackney is an irritable accountant; Angel is no angel; St Johns Wood can’t keep a secret.  

For some, the universe is a theatre, a concert hall, a museum. The South Bank flickers brightly through the ages, from Shakespeare’s Globe and Drake’s swift Hind to the stern modernism of the turbine hall, the optimistic brutalism of the Festival quarter. Quieter jewels shine in side streets and suburbs – a tiny gallery where tiny watercolours paused time, an upstairs room in a pub where some guys with guitars wove wonders one night. A whole street still rings with the powerful echo of a long ago performance of a violin concerto. Or the entire city is a patchwork of architecture, eras and styles crowding up to one another, beads of brilliance menaced by horrible stains. Wren churches point to glory, younger structures mask their insecurity with bravado, miles of mild terraces, uneasy tower blocks. All these buildings are held in a million minds, rated in a million different ways – masterpiece, monstrosity, home.     

Some live right on the skin of life, soaking their senses as each moment’s experience falls on them like a succession of bright raindrops. Their memories bind to places, making maps of sensations. The taste of strong bitter coffee under a red awning, a terrace of pale lemon-coloured brick and oppressive symmetry, by a park full of roses and honeysuckle, their scent rising entwined with a blackbird’s song into the darkening sky. The relentless din of traffic on a grey road, overlooked by silent statues of mottled pink granite, gleaming in the rain.   

Children’s maps are blank sheets, then coloured crayon bright with the few places they know, but know intensely. Everywhere is a definite article. The park. The school. Soon the page will grow, and labels, names and other dull abstractions will intrude.

Older people have maps which are thick with layers, atlas tomes with a page for every era, its people, places, fashions and concerns dimly visible through the translucent sheet of the following years. They know that the topmost layer, the present city, is ephemeral too, a gossamer leaf like the rest.

This man’s map has dwindled as he has retreated from the world. Once a healthy network, now a sad sparse scrawl of a few safe haunts, vanishing from the edges in until little but one node, one room, remains.

He looks from his window to see the birds rise from the trees by the canal. As they ascend they may take in an overhead view of the city, almost the same as the map on the page. But they cannot see it. The roads and landmarks mean little, their arrangement an incidental texture on the spread out plateau of animal threat and bounty – places of food, shelter, danger. They wheel and bank above the city, take a scent from the air, a magnetic signal from the earth, and turn together toward the sea.   


A substantial gap

There has been a substantial gap round here while I have been doing other things. There’s less stained glass these days, but more of other things…