When I was growing up a framed print of a map hung on the wall in the hallway. It was one of my favourite things, littered with strange latin names and with Vs where Us should have been. The outlines of the continents and countries were all familiar and yet slightly distorted, becoming more recognisable around the shores of western Europe.

I don’t know the provenance of that map print but at some point it got taken to the charity shop and replaced by Van Gogh’s sunflowers1. I guess that means that I shall never be able to work out exactly what map it was and when it was from.

Anyway my point is that old maps are a great reminder of human imagination and collective consciousness. They may seem quaint now that we have Google maps and satellite photographs seared into our brains or available in app form for our phones. Even so, maps have certainly lied to us as recently as when we were children - all those maps in dusty atlases that taught us how Spain was as big as Africa (or rather, that Africa was as small as Spain2).

You see, maps are different from the world they represent3. A Google map is not more accurate per se than a medieval one, it just encodes different (and differing amounts of) information. Therefore, even though we may now consider ourselves as a better collective notion of the world around us, we are in fact cleaving to the same delusion as our forebears who swapped V for U.

As an aside, it is intriguing to note that five hundreds years ago a person was more likely to have walked over a given area of land and not know how it might look upon a map. Now they are more likely to know its place on a map and yet not have the experience of walking across it.

All this stems from the fact that I have thought a lot about mental maps lately, those spaces in our mind where we draw our impressions of how the world is and how it really works: the internal topographies that we build for our thoughts, ambitions and beliefs. Is there really a correct path to take through life and a map that guide us on our journey? Perhaps. You may be lucky enough to have a map but be warned, no matter the detail there will always be something missed. My advice then, is to draw the map as you go and include new landmark as you meet it.


  1. Which has, no doubt, itself been consigned to the charity shop after my parents’ move to a smaller (but lovely!) flat. 

  2. These issues arise due to the nature of the projection employed, something worthy of a post of its own. I’ll add it to the list! 

  3. Just as the word “rose” is different from the flower/plant that it represents.