I’m a conservative by instinct. I’m am not talking politics here, but about attitude and lifestyle. I always have cornflakes at breakfast time and to be offered wheatabix instead would ruin the whole day. I’ve never really taken to television, preferring the radio, or to be truthful, the wireless. I rue the passing of the Home Service and the Light Programme, but I’ve settled for Radio 4. One of the longer running programme on this wave-length is that well-known, and well-loved offering, “Desert Island Discs”. It is as likely that pigs will sprout wings as it is that I shall ever be invited to appear on the programme. But, just in case the improbable happens, I have prepared my answer to the question always asked towards the end, “Which book, other than the works of Shakespeare and the Bible, would you like to take with you?”
I shall choose an atlas, or a collection of maps. I know that they will be out-of-date almost before I’ve opened them, but nevertheless, that is what I shall insist on having. Countries may change not only their boundaries, but their titles; towns and cities are re-named; counties disappear and new ones formed, but the fascination of even an out-of-date map remains.
For even where little or nothing has changed over the centuries, there is still much to be surprised about. “I never realised that country A was so near, or alternatively, so far from, country B”, one will exclaim. I always thought Calcutta was in China. So that’s where Bulawayo is. One sees names of places of which one has never heard, and realise they will contain people whose language and experiences are completely alien to us, and yet who will have the range of emotions, the fears, hopes, joys and disappointments with which all of us are familiar. The inhabitants will laugh and sing, weep and mourn as does all human-kind, though we do not observe them; nor do they us.
When my son was a boy he wanted a map in his bedroom. At that time garages were giving paper sectional road maps of the British Isles to customers, and I acquired a set which we pasted together like a jig-saw on the bedroom wall. It stretched from floor to ceiling. But it wasn’t until I saw it complete that I realised for the first time how much further south the tip of Cornwall was to the south-eastern tip of England. Yes, maps are full of surprises, of new information.
To a motorist a road map is essential if one is to avoid spending more time asking the way of the passer-by than in actually driving. At least this is so when one is travelling the route for the first time, or after a long time gap. Stevenson wrote in his “Travels with a Donkey” that “..to travel hopefully is better than to arrive”. But that is of limited truth. Most of us set out on journeys for a purpose, and with a destination in mind. We are anxious to arrive. The journey then is a means to an end, and not the end in itself.
Part of the pleasure in undertaking a journey whether by car, bicycle on foot or whatever, lies in the planning beforehand, particularly if it is intended to include several different locations en route, or to avoid certain undesirable features. Sometimes the detail to be found in an ordinance survey map is required, at others times a street map of a town or city is the more appropriate. Then occasionally a panoramic view over a large area is more important than detail, so the small scale map covering much ground is required.
Each type of map has its uses, all are fascinating and absorbing, packed with interest if used imaginatively.
Though we perhaps associate maps most readily with geography, they are also closely allied with history. The names of places demonstrate how, in the past, conquerors have come and gone, driven sometimes by greed, sometimes by curiosity, perhaps to evangelise, alternatively to plunder. Others came by accident, or because they wanted to better understand the world in which we dwell. There on the map is revealed something of the past, as well as features of the present.
Many journeys can be undertaken without recourse to map reading. There are signs to follow, people to ask, the road is marked, or we can follow the crowd. Perhaps we have made the journey so many times before that, as the saying goes, we could walk the road blindfolded. But for other journeys we are foolhardy if we set out without map and compass. There are no obvious signs, and paths are ill-marked or absent. Being lost loses its charms unless we are confident of retrieving our way in due course.
But to make full use of a map we have to identify where we are now. The map in the shopping centre, or the display in a strange town is at its most helpful when there is that large arrow pointing at a spot and inscribed, “You are here”. We need a starting point to make sense of what is around us, and to determine a route to follow.
We are most secure in life when we know where we stand at the present; when we know where it is we want to go; when we have a map to guide us. Maps in the atlas are a pictorial record of experience gained over the past, of explorations made, and of careful compilation of facts. In our metaphorical journey of life we rely greatly upon the garnered experience of others who have travelled the routes before us, and recorded their knowledge and experience, and left the maps for our guidance.
How do we know where we start from? If we are in a familiar place where the landmarks are recognised, the answer is easy. It may be there are names around us on buildings or streets, sign posts or mile stones. Sometimes we can enquire of strangers who point us in the right direction.
In life’s journey if we wish to tread new ground, we need to know where we are starting from. We may not be just where we think we are. We have to lift up our eyes and look around for signs; we have to rely on the opinions of others.
That notorious traveller whose name is not revealed except under a pseudonym, the prodigal son, suddenly realised he was not where he thought he was, and certainly not where he wanted to be. It was not until he saw the arrow pointing “You are here” that he was able to retrace his steps, finding his way back so as to start the journey he really wanted to make. The map then made sense.
If an atlas contains gathered knowledge, and a history of the human race, so there are many sources of recorded experience to which we can turn to help us on life’s journey. But as with reading a street guide, it is not wholly helpful unless we first establish where we are now, and where we are heading.
Finding out where we are needs a period of quiet introspection. An analysis of what we view in our vicinity, an examination of the signs we see around us. It is a process of self-examination, perhaps referred to as meditation or prayer. But sometimes that doesn’t enlighten sufficiently, so the help of others has to be sought. Perhaps we shall first get the answer one always seems to get from the first passer-by when asking directions, “Sorry, I’m a stranger here myself.” But persistence is usually rewarded.
Then comes the question of where do we want to go. Perhaps it is the palace of peace and contentment, on the street of mutual respect, in the city of tolerance, in the county of love and understanding.
Having established where we are and where we want to go, then we can plan our route. We turn now to the books of reference, the recorded experiences other explorers in the atlases of human strivings. We supplement this by asking directions on the way.
As in our physical travels, our map reading is not consistently up to scratch, so we take a wrong turnings. Sometimes there are road works and diversions. Others may give misleading or even false directions. Then there has to be a stop and the assessment of “Where are we now?” begins anew.
Roads have their service stations, towns and cities their travel bureau, railway stations their enquiry offices, airports their information desks. All resting places where help may be sought, manned by the knowledgeable and helpful. Life’s journey is not through barren territory, for there too are stopping places. We call them churches, chapels, temples, mosques, synagogues and the like. In them we get the chance to ask, “Where am I?”, “Where am I going?” “Can you help to put me on my way?”
You will know there is not always agreement on the best routes. One will say, “When I go to Manchester I find the best way is via the Snake Pass”, whilst another swears by the merits of Woodhead. Yet another prefers the scenery through Chapel-en-le-Frith even though it does take longer. And so the arguments range on.
Perhaps on life’s journey we are all wanting the same destination, but in the end we choose our own path. We have our own criteria to determine what is the preferred route. We get weary and want to rest awhile. We are diverted for reasons good or bad. We are not ready for the rigorous climb, or we stop to assist another who is broken down or wandering off in the wrong direction.
But the important thing is that we keep our maps intact, use them with diligence, consult them with understanding.
From time to time we sketch out our own rough map the better to direct a stranger or a friend. Our own experience thus being used for the benefit of another. For we are not only travellers, we can become explorers and map makers in our own right. Our experiences may not be entered into the great atlases of the world alongside the efforts of such as Captain Cook, but our own small knowledge may allow us to direct someone possibly just to the end of the street and thus to the high road.
I like maps and atlases, not merely for the interest they generate and the facts they contain, but for what they represent. They are a reminder of the journey on which we are all engaged; a reminder of experience acquired, recorded and now passed on to help others; a representation of a spirit of exploration, and of a wish to aid fellow beings to better understanding; they encapsulate much of what is highest and best in the Christian ethic.
C.J. Rosling 1 August 1993
Fulwood 1 August 1993
Hucklow 29 August 1993; 15 November 1998
Mexborough 29 August 1993; 14 April 1996
Hucklow 27 February 2005