I bought myself a new road atlas on Friday. About time, too - the old one had been shredded by assorted children, not quite yet old enough to appreciate maps as things of beauty. I happened to be in a petrol station, as one does, and I suddenly spotted the rack of maps. Now, I could easily spend an hour or so musing over various atlases, weighing up the benefits and demerits of what are essentially only slightly different versions of exactly the same thing - the roads don't change from atlas to atlas, after all. But time is short - I'm on my way home - and I choose the one which seems to have the best combination of durability and value; in the end, it's only a road atlas, it's not a proper folding map.
For proper folding maps have a special hold on me. I remember poring over Ordnance Survey maps - those beautiful old quarter-inch editions, the traditional red-covered one-inch series, almost as soon as I could read. One of the reasons I went to University in Edinburgh is because of my great aunt, who had a streetmap of the city in her front room. Often, when visiting, I would pull out the map and study it intently - finding what, I cannot say, but I seemed to find something new every time. There are those, I know, who cannot follow roadmaps; cannot relate the marks on the paper to the physical world; I think I understand how that can be, but I cannot imagine it. I used to think that I had an innate sense of direction, but I realise now that it came from studying maps of places until I could navigate around them with my eyes shut - as soon as I was in a strange place, I couldn't find North, except by blind guesswork. Having said that, one of my favourite stories about myself relates the tale of navigating out of the entirely unfamiliar town of Blackburn purely by the position of the sun in the sky.
I have maps all around me - there is a seventeenth-century map of Scotland above the desk where I'm typing this; there's a wonderful historical map of the London Underground in the bookcase just behind me; there are at least two facsimile old county maps in the drawers of this desk, and if I go downstairs, I'll easily find my huge Times Atlas of the World, and that's to say nothing of the maps and atlases in the car. And there's a kind of magic in them - they're not simply navigation aids, they're the keys to the world. With the right map, and enough determination, you can go anywhere, and it can't be just me who would (and does) make the occasional detour because I've spotted a new or interesting-looking road on the map. I often think that you could strand me anywhere and as long as I have a good book, I'll be fine. But the same is true - possibly more so - of a good map.