Rebecca Solnit

That the science of cartography is limited

is the title of an Eavan Boland poem (and a point I wish to prove).

In that poem, Boland is walking with her husband in the woods. They come to a track that her husband identifies as a famine road, a place of forced labour and suffering. ‘Where they died, there the road ended,’ she writes:

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that
the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

The poem broke my heart the first time I read it, but it wasn’t until much later that I was able to find an explanation for its impact. It was at a talk by Rebecca Solnit on the subject of maps. At the time, she was embarking on a project called Infinite City, a radical remapping of her hometown, San Francisco. Her proposed ‘alternative’ maps included ones locating Butterfly Species, Murders, Zen Buddhist Centres, Queer Sites. ‘What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces,’ she said, and it hit me that this was a way of summing up what Boland is saying in her poem. A place can be altered by time, fate, a random meeting. These alterations are not evident, they cannot be expressed by coordinates, they are simply known and felt. One of my older students told me that as a child during the war she saw an entire London street levelled by a bomb. I could walk down that street, and to me it is another street, because it carries no personal associations, but she retains the image of the street in ruins, and nothing of its present can wipe away that past.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about this issue of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’, ‘personal’ and ‘public’ maps, as Vici MacDonald and I have been revisiting the places we charted in our Formerly project. Our field trips took two whole days to complete, as we journeyed south, then east, crossing the river at Woolwich, heading west, then north. What struck me in our travels was how much London changes; whole blocks are toppled in the name of progress. But if you have been here long enough, the folk memory of what was there before is somehow ingrained in you. What struck me too was how some things never change; there are certain aspects, buildings, streets that connect me with strangers, fellow city dwellers, who walked the same steps and saw the same sights hundreds of years before. The official maps can tell you how to get somewhere, how to plan your route, but the unofficial ones tell you how you felt while you were doing it. Solnit spoke too about the personal map, created when one has lived in a particular city for many years. On that map are sites of liaisons and break-ups, streets of friends and lovers – a series of unofficial (and deeply internal) blue plaques.

Formerly is an attempt to erect some unofficial blue plaques. The exhibition is looking lovely in its spot high over the Thames in the Poetry Library. From next week, we will be inviting visitors to create their own psychogeographical texts, based on their own wanderings, their personal maps. Watch this space.

Exhibition has now been extended until 3rd February:

Eavan Boland poem in its entirety:

Rebecca Solnit:

The Great Bear is an altered map of the London Underground by the artist Simon Patterson

The cloverleaf map of the world, with Jerusalem at the centre, was created in 1581 by Bünting

Oslo of the mind


As of this morning I’ve booked tickets to fly to Oslo in April.  I have never been to Oslo before, and so I am already imagining what the city will be like, in the way we often piece together places from snippets of films, or books we’ve read.  British friends who visit New York City for the first time invariably return to say it’s exactly how they had pictured it – so immersed are we with the ‘idea’ of New York, its Deco towers and sharp-suited men. What I’ve just described is, of course, the cliché of New York, but one which is based on iconic images: photographs by Stieglitz or films like The Sweet Smell of Success. These clichés are based on the way the integrity and excitement of the city is distilled, in an attempt to capture its spirit. And so, New York is familiar to us before we ever get there, because we know it so well in two dimensions.

Oslo, of course, is slightly less iconic. I have been to other Scandinavian cities, Stockholm and Helsinki and Copenhagen, and I like their small scale, the architectural mix of the simple vernacular juxtaposed against the grand imperial and the austere modernist (one of my favourite buildings of all time is the Helsinki Central Rail Station by Eliel Saarinen – a monument to Finnish mythology and brute strength). I like cities which are cold in the winter, which are serious about icy pastimes and deep darkness, and meet the long nights with candlelight and strong drink. I tend never to be in such places in the summer, so I have yet to experience the joyous midnight sun.

But I will be visiting Oslo in the Spring, and it looks like the sort of city where you can walk everywhere – the city centre fits neatly onto a one-page map in the guidebook, not like the immense sprawl of London, where even after nearly twenty-five years, I still need to take an A to Z with me when venturing beyond my usual areas.  Oslo looks like the sort of city where you might be able to wander aimlessly. In her wonderful book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit quotes Walter Benjamin: “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” Solnit goes on to say that in Benjamin’s terms “to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” The difference between being lost and losing oneself. Solnit points out that the word “lost” comes (appropriately) from the old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, the moment when the fight is finished and it is time for the soldiers to disperse; suggesting that we are “lost” without a cause, a position in a regimented society. And sure, I will have an itinerary, a list of places I’d like to see, but it’s often the places you aren’t expecting in a new city that you will remember.

So I look forward to losing myself, to placing myself in the map I am staring at; I’m imagining myself there already, in three dimensions.