Getting Lost and Finding Maps

I wander through each chartered street

Near where the chartered Thames doth flow

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe

William Blake

Experiences of lostness

One of my first adult experiences of London was getting lost. I was attempting to travel by the Victoria line and instead of ending up in Green Park found myself in the unearthly vicinity of Finsbury Park. It was very disorientating. The city seemed vast and unfathomable, taking you in unexpected directions and leaving you in unknown territories. Later, when I was living in London, I got similarly disoriented at Baker Street station. The multiplicity of platforms leading off each other and spread with apparent randomness throughout its concrete warren was too much for me to take in. I was swept along by the hurrying crowds and left dizzied and confused. Now I am at home in the underground although I still dislike its pressing crowds and the hot sticky clatter of its rolling (when you're lucky) stock. I have learnt to read the formalised topography of the underground map and manage to apply it to the warren-like reality beneath London. But most of London is not as straightforward as the underground. I remember going to a party on the Gloucester Grove estate next to the notorious North Peckham estate. It was a series of interconnected blocks with no apparent order, leaving you with the impression of being in a maze purposely designed to prevent anyone getting into or out of it. Sure enough every half hour another person would arrive with the same story of spending an hour or so trying to find the flat. Yet it is not mere geography which turns London into a maze - it is its very vastness and its swilling throng of people who all seem to have a better idea of where they are going than you.

Now and again, however, you do encounter people who are obviously lost. Two stick in my mind. The first encounter was in Kingsland High Street where I met a young Peruvian woman who was trying to get to the British museum. Why she was trying to get there I don't know and why she was in Dalston I have even less idea. I particularly remember her because not only was she transcendentally beautiful but also because of her wispy frailty. She was a Amazonian orchid in the midst of the urban jungle. I happened to be going into town myself so accompanied her part of the way utterly captivated by her beauty but also disturbed by her apparent frailty in the midst of London's churning throng. It seemed almost impossible to believe that she wouldn't be abused in some way. Leaving her and seeing her swept up in the crowd was like seeing a toy boat disappearing into white water. My second encounter was at Vauxhall - a desolate and traffic swept region south of the Thames. At Vauxhall station I met a young man with learning difficulties. He was lost and trying to find the way to somewhere in east London - quite a way away. I did my best to help him and walked with him to the underground station trying to explain to him where he needed to go. He was demonstratively grateful, holding tightly onto my hand and thanking me profusely. I felt moved to go with him but had an appointment in a different direction and felt unable to break it. As I saw him disappear down the elevator I wondered how I could let such a child wander through such a brazenly adult world. Where had he come from? Where would he end up? How had he come to be traveling alone? What map would guide him through the confusion of London?  It is a universal experience - lost in a city which we can never really hope to understand.

Lostness does not manifest itself merely in not being able to find the way. It can also be discerned in never looking for a way: living in a kind of blindness to ones surroundings. I was particularly struck by this when I met a Chinese man from Taiwan who was studying in London and living in a vast, anonymous slab of council flats in Battersea. It seemed incongruous that such an educated, respectable man with a house and family back home should live in such a place but what really struck me was that neither him nor his flat mates were aware of a parade of shops, library and church no more than 100 yards from his block. His world consisted entirely of his route to the station and so to his college. He couldn't see any further than this. He was as lost as I was in the dizzying confusion of Baker Street. This blindness to the surrounding community is not uncommon in London. I recall a church leader who was the pastor of a successful church in an area which had been experiencing significant gentrification for many years. His church had grown over the years but he tells of only becoming aware after 15 years that most of his church members had degrees, even though the actual church building was situated in the midst of a high-rise estate. This was another kind of lostness. A closing of the mind to the complex realities of the world in which one is living. Perhaps, in such a complex city as London it is necessary because no matter how carefully you look, you can never really see clearly, never find a map which really charts every complexity, never hope to avoid all the dead-ends and all the one-way streets. But we continue to try to find maps which will be our guides through the many-layered mysteries of the city.

Charting the city

There are three key maps used in London. The first are the stylized maps mainly used to describe transport routes. The most important of these is the underground map which has assumed an iconic status. But there are also other similar maps, particularly the more recent bus maps. The second type of map is the ubiquitous A-Z maps which began in London and have now charted the whole country. The final map is the comprehensive ordnance survey maps which with military precision chart every square metre of the country. Each of them is a metaphor for the way we approach the city and seek to find some order in its complexity and chaos.

The Ordnance Survey

Ordnance survey maps cover the whole of the country and range from small scale maps suitable for touring to the very large scale maps used for building sites. London is minutely charted by these maps and has been since the Victorian era, they tell us the intimate details of how gardens were arranged and the distribution of men's and women's sleeping quarters in the workhouse.  Even now the parameters of our urban living space are carefully recorded and available to prying eyes. The history of the Ordnance Survey gives us more clues as to the meaning of this way of looking at the city.

It all began with the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland in 1745. Reflecting upon their experiences the army realised that they had insufficient information about the geography of the terrain over which they were fighting. The rebels knew it because they lived on it but the forces seeking to exercise control over it needed a map. This was particularly significant in the task of pacifying the Highlands after the victory at Culloden, so a one inch to one thousand yards map was drawn. With the Scots pacifyed, map making went into abeyance until the threat of a French invasion under Napoleon arose. The army then realised that they needed a detailed map of the south coast so as to organise their defences more efficiently. This began the tradition of the one inch to one mile maps. Military organization, therefore, began the ordnance survey tradition but it was tax which brought it to its highest climax in the detailed large scale maps which now enable us to read London like (or in) a book. The context was the taxation of Ireland - another troublesome colony - the official history of the Ordnance Survey describes the process so:

Colby's army of Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery surveyors, together with a team of locally recruited civilians, mapped their way through the country, from north to south, producing not merely a cadastral boundary map, but a fully fledged topographical map on which every house, stream, hill and fence was shown in minute detail.

The Ordnance Survey therefore seeks to be comprehensive. And it is comprehensive but it is not always accurate. My house, for instance, doesn't exist as far as the Ordnance Survey is concerned because it was only built a year ago! The very comprehensiveness of the maps means that they can only be updated occasionally, despite the modern innovations of aerial photography and computer technology. In the final analysis the Ordnance Survey map is only a skeleton on which the flesh of London is grown, but it is important for it is not only a record of what is, it is also the basis on which changes to London are planned and implemented. Without a map any kind of planning is impossible.

The sister of the Ordnance Survey is the census. It is similarly comprehensive, similarly slow to respond to change and is another basic map on which change is planned and implemented. It was first conducted in Britain in 1801, around the same time as the Ordnance Survey were making its first maps. This perhaps illustrates the change in consciousness that was happening in Britain at the time - the change which Peter Ackroyd identifies as:

 ...  the systematic sorting out of London into single-purpose homogeneous specialised neighbourhoods ... strict social segregation became a prerequisite for success in any new development ... the shift reflected the pervasive move towards professionalization and specialisation in all aspects of 19th century thought and activity

The census was resisted by many people in the 18th century both as an infringement of personal liberty and because of the biblical injunction against censuses (2 Samuel 24). It was described in 1753 as a "most effectual engine of rapacity and repression" by the MP for York and in the 1800s an enumerator noted "some very nice language was indulged in at my expense. In asking some questions I run the risk of being kicked out!" This suspicion of the census has lessened somewhat but has not disappeared; a campaign against it was run in 1971 by the Sunday Mirror under the banner headline "Mind Your Own Business" and on census day two young women removed their clothes in public saying that their actions symbolised how the census would lay bare their private lives.

The Ordnance Survey and the Census are therefore symbols of the attitude to London which seeks to order and control it - not just in general terms but in the minute specificity of people's day-to-day lives. They are some of the basic building blocks of social control. But they are only instruments and they can as easily be used for good purposes as bad. An Ordnance Survey map can be used to plan an urban motorway which displaces thousands of powerless people but it can also be used to support the development of a community park. And we must not neglect the complexity of reality- the urban motorway might turn out in 10 years to be the agent of renewal for that deprived neighbourhood whilst the community park ends up being a centre for drug dealing! Ultimately maps are only a start, it is what people do with and without them which counts[1].

The A-Z

The major problem with the Ordnance Survey for ordinary Londoners is that it does not keep up-to-date with the constantly changing city. In the 1930s maps of London were based on the hopelessly out of date 1919 Ordnance Survey map. In typical London fashion no one had an overview of how London was changing, 31 separate borough surveyors each had their own updated OS sheets but they varied in quality. Ordinary people had no very accurate way of finding their way round London when they ventured outside their 'village'. Then a peculiar sequence of events brought together an artist, a family tradition of map making and a commitment to what people needed to produce the A-Z.

The artist was Phyllis Pearsall the daughter of an Hungarian immigrant who had made and lost a fortune in map publication. She had successfully established herself as an artist and writer but was drawn back into the family business when her father, who had emigrated to America, decided to try and restablish his London map making interests. Phyllis Pearsall brought a new perception into the traditional concerns of commercial map making, realising that people wanted a map which showed them where their own (and all their acquaintances') home was located within the ever expanding metropolis. With a dedication to detail and accuracy she went beyond official records on to the streets of London themselves:

Slapdash or nonexistent records, or petty bureaucrat's refusal of entry sent me checking on the ground - chaotic after checking maps. Often in the maze of many a turning off many a side street I found myself back where I started, or completely lost, had to ask the way

Pearsall p27

Pearsall was not a hyper-organised person, it would appear, she stored all the index cards with street details in shoe boxes and while they were being transported one blew away resulting in Trafalgar Square being missed out of the first index! But it is the index, of course, which is the key to the A-Z. It gives a way of organising London into an order which is readily understood by our literate society - the alphabet. This organising principal together with the commitment to an accurate and personal engagement with the reality on the ground has provided us with perhaps the single most useful tool for engaging with the complex enormity of London. The other key to the A-Z is that it lacks the detailed exactness of the Ordnance Survey. It does not peer into every facet of people's lives but focuses on what is important and like a medieval painting makes what is more important larger - streets and street names are therefore inflated beyond their real size because they are what people need to know. But in some instances details beyond those available on the Ordnance Survey are added - most obviously that of road numbers on major roads.

Interestingly this popular and democratic tool for urban living was produced by the commercial impulse rather than the charitable. The A-Z worked because it sold. Pearsall had great problems getting the A-Z accepted by the traditional booksellers such as Foyles but was given her first break by WH Smith - the newsagents whose fortune was made by exploiting the potential of railway stations, quickly followed by the high street retailers Woolworths. So A-Z has superseded the Ordnance Survey as the map for cities (although the OS retain their dominance of the countryside) and the A-Z remains dependent upon them. In fact the company was very nearly brought to its knees by having to pay royalties to the OS, along with its obligations to that other great instrument of state control the tax man! (Pearsall p64). But we cannot put the success of the A-Z simply down to the wonders of capitalism. Pearsall herself  recovered a Christian faith and wanted to resist the worst features of capitalist rapacity, which it seems, she experienced in her father and his associates. She had to fight for the attention to detail, that characterises the A-Z for this was what people wanted (rather than what they could be got to pay for).  She finally turned her company into a trust for the benefit of her employees

The reason I was willing to make any and every sacrifice to bring the Trust into being (and continue ready to do so to see it soundly established, God willing) is because of the human shock, distress and greed I have seen precipitated by ... present day accepted business practices. ...

Unless you considered this Trust worthwhile in a human sense, and not just "big business", you should not be undertaking the responsibility for it. It should also be fun. The essence of it all, of course, is to love God and to love ones neighbour as oneself; to fail and still continue to try.

Pearsall Appendix B p203

The Underground Map

The underground map is, without doubt, the most widely known map of London -it is the definitive representation of London. And yet some call it not a map but a diagram for it is simply a diagram of the London Transport underground railways.  Yet this modern icon is so much more than that:

Over the last 60 years many newcomers to London, whether as visitors or residents, have pounced on the Diagram as on a magic guide to a hitherto totally bewildering city. Before them was an orderly simulacrum for a disorderly, disjointed accumulation of urban villages

Above any consideration of the Diagram as a navigation aid was the optimistic vision it offered of a city that was not chaotic, in spite of appearances to the contrary, that knew what it was about and wanted its visitors to know, too. Its bright, clean and colourful design exuded confidence in every line. Get the hang of this, it said, and the great metropolis is your oyster.

Garland 1994 p7

For most Londoners, it is an essential simplification of the city itself

AJ Scott in Garland 1994 p5

It is not without significance that the modern underground map and the A-Z were created in the same decade. They both speak of a certain confidence in making London explicable which seems to reflect the confidence at the time that the modern industrial world could be made understandable.  With sufficient perseverance and creative flair the city could become a comprehensible place where we can live content and ordered lives. The driving force behind the underground map was the emerging techniques of graphic art.

The underground map was created by Harry Beck. Beck was an engineering draftsman who produced that his first sketch for the map in 1931 after he had been made redundant by the Underground Railways. It was a simple tidying up of existing maps making stations evenly spaced and all railways run at 90 or 45 degree angles to each other. It was originally rejected as ' too revolutionary' but Beck persisted and a year later it was adopted. It very quickly became a popular design and has stayed with us ever since - if with many minor and occasionally major changes. Beck retained control of the map until 1959 and continued to work on it even when he took on a new job teaching graphic design. In fact he appears to have been quite obsessive about the map, spending much of his spare time trying out small changes and improvements. When London Transport decided that they had had enough of his obsessiveness he waged a long battle with them about an agreement which he claimed to have reached with them when he had given them the copyright for the design.

The map, therefore, has an interesting and complex background - not least being the economic factors which drove the different railway companies to come together in a joint organization in the first place, had and so created the need for a comprehensive map. But the creative simplicity of its design hides all this complexity behind the power of its graphic vision. Some initially resisted this vision

Critics protested that the Diagram was an inaccurate and misleading guide to London's complex configuration; some were even suspicious of its real purpose, hinting that it might be part of a devious plot to fool gullible public into thinking the remoter stations on the Underground were more accessible than in fact they were.

The map works by enlarging the centre and radically reducing outer London, this enables the 'important' and complex parts of London to be clearly and legibly discerned. The suburbs become not the vast bulk of London that they actually are, but contracted feeders into the main action. It seems to me a mistake to view the map as merely a diagram of a railway network - the presence of the Thames in all the maps gives a lie to this interpretation. The map really is about London as it is, albeit seen (as it always must be) through a particular vision. The map says what is important in London. Hackney is well known for not having an underground station and it is therefore not part of the underground map. Hackney performs a role in London of being the place of chaos and nonconformity - it is there and does its thing, stewing in its own juice but it is not important. The map therefore, for all its clean simplicity, reflects the reality of London by ignoring Hackney. It is also instructive to compare the underground with bus maps. Bus maps are not reducible in the same way as the underground map, they are stylized but retain a close connection with geography. This reflects what buses are actually like. They connect you with the urban landscape - you can see it and you engage with its people. Buses can be sociable places whether it is a chance meeting with friends, exchanging remarks on the antics of bus drivers or engaging with a conductor. The underground doesn't connect you with the reality of London in the same way, you are squeezed next to people but you are also distanced from them. Communication only happens in time of crisis - someone collapsing or the train being stuck in a tunnel. The underground sweeps you up into the vision of a bustling, modern city - noisy, dirty but dynamic. The bus brings you face-to-face with the raw and mundane reality. And it is the underground that is important. People don't worry that bus routes will lose them votes but the underground is a real political battleground. The underground is seen as a key to London's 'global competitiveness'. Buses are, frankly, just for the poor who can't afford cars and are too unhealthy to use a bike.

Which is not to say that the underground map isn't a wonderful thing. It introduced me to London and was my first guide to its complexities before I discovered the buses. And such simplifications of the city have their uses. The description above of Hackney as the place of chaos and nonconformity is a simplification and it would not be difficult to find many places of rigidly established order in Hackney. But the understanding of Hackney as a place of nonconformity does, at least for me, begin to give me a handle on what it is about. It provides a vision which is both real - Hackney really does have an important history as a centre of nonconformist Christianity and is a centre for present day nonconformity such as the anarchists of Class War and it also enables me to feel affection for Hackney because it ceases to be alien. I can see my own commitment to the nonconformist tradition of English Christianity in the warp and weft of Hackney life and it makes me feel rooted, in much the same way that an appreciation of London as a city created by incomers makes it a more homely place for those of us who weren't born and raised here. Maybe this is why people feel affection for the underground map and like to wear boxer shorts sporting it - in some way it makes their city feel more homely and them more rooted in it. The problem comes when the simplification is taken for the reality itself.

All statistics are a simplification of the reality of human life. Surely the problem with much regeneration work is the reliance upon statistics which falls apart once the reality of urban communities is experienced. But the converse also seems to me to be true. An example is Joyce's Ulysses and its popularity amongst critics. Ulysses is renowned for being virtually unreadable as its stream of consciousness description of one day in the life of a Dublin Jew is so detailed that you get mired in the relentless complexity and reality. On its own it just doesn't work. But it is a gold mine for critics, so amazingly accurate and virtuoso a description of life is it, that critics can use it as a tool for developing their own vision in an endlessly rich and flexible way. It is not a book to enjoy reading straight off but it is a great book to write a Ph.D. on - small wonder that in our age of the critic it was voted book of the century. It is a book like London - we need visionary simplifications and interpretations in order to enjoy it to the full!

Maps as metaphors

These three maps, therefore, give us three metaphors for how people understand the city.

The first is typified by the Ordnance Survey and the Census. These seek to be comprehensive and to understand the city by sheer weight of data. The more data we have, the more we will understand. This tends to only be an option for the establishment because only the establishment has the resources to gather this vast amount of data. The fundamental problem with this approach is that it tends to become oppressive because the data creates the illusion of control. It needs to be subverted by the understanding that the data only describes a small part of people's lives and that cities possess a complexity which can never be understood by quantity of data.

The second is typified by the A-Z. This is a commercial response to the city. It gives people a pragmatic overview of the city. It doesn't pretend to do everything but only provides what is important to people as they seek to visit friends, deliver parcels and have a night out. The danger of this approach is that it can begin to believe that this is all London is about - it is just a pragmatic playground where we play our own individual games. It rejects the spirit and pursues only profit or pleasure. It requires tempering by a spiritual concern for the individuals within the city and the city as a whole so that the city can become a meaningful place and not just a conglomeration of streets, buildings and business opportunities.

The third is represented by the underground map. This is the visionary understanding of the city which by a creative insight and technical mastery creates meaning in the city which can make it feel like home. It cuts through the complexity and chaos and provides a clean vision for how the city could be and how we can live in it. This vision needs balancing, and, at times, undercutting by an exploration of the actual reality of the city - a getting out of the smooth finesse of the new Jubilee Line onto the mundane crudeness of the London Bus.

Liberating maps

There are other maps of London. Notably the road maps which enable cars to find a way through the congestion which they themselves have created. There are also more environmentally friendly maps. We have a map in our kitchen of the Lea Valley park which pushes its green finger from rural Hertfordshire deep into the industrial East End. There are many maps each serving the interests of their particular constituency, giving each of them a way of finding their way through the maze of London. All these maps, unless they are abstract like the underground map, are dependent on the fundamental surveying of the Ordnance Survey. But there are other maps. These are the maps we make ourselves. They are free from the rigid grid of the OS for we make them for our own purposes and if we want to change the scale we can. If one road can be reduced in size, that's fine. If one tricky junction needs enlarging that too is fine. These maps are representations of how we experience the city. In the nursery at our church the children are making a map which reflects their experience of the city. They are able to represent the shop where they went on an expedition and they represent it in a way which makes sense to them. This provides us with another map metaphor - the map which is an expression of how we find our individual and community way through the city.

These personal maps are more important than we might imagine. They enable us to find our way without the professional patronage of those equipped with theodolite or computer. And they also can tell us things that no professional can tell us. It is interesting to get people to sketch out maps of their own communities, this can help identify how people feel about their environment. Areas which are felt to be unsafe can be pinpointed and also the areas where people congregate and where they feel at home. Looking at a standard map of the Bellingham estate where I used to lived would make you think that the centre of the estate was the green in the middle of the estate. This would encourage you to believe that the churches located around it were ideally placed in the middle of their communities. In fact the centre of the community had shifted over time to the small parade of shops next to the railway station. The green had become a backwater, especially after it was redeveloped as a park. This misguided attempt at town planning ended up making the green a place of fear and anxiety which people positively avoided! In order to understand the estate you needed to put the official map alongside the map of the area which people were carrying in their minds. This process has, in fact, become a crucial part of development practice in the third world.

An example is the P3-D model. This begins with a geographical model of the area which is built up in relief so that a tangible model is created. Community members are then gathered and their 'mental maps' including such details as water courses, where crops are planted etc. are incorporated by them directly onto the model. This is then added to with official information - such as political boundaries. From this flat paper maps can be created which give a far more accurate picture of the area than official maps. But the final process is perhaps of even greater significance:

The model has to be entrusted to an entity having the means and the commitment to safeguard and maintain it, and to make it accessible to those who would like to use, update, integrate or correct previously input information. Unlike other spatial tools, a P3-D model never gets completed. Like a living organism it needs to be nurtured by regularly updating and enriching its information. .

Communities come to own their own maps. This is a symbolic and practical reality which is of great significance. To have a map of an area is to have power over it, maps are the precursors for control. Whilst people have their maps made for them they will never control their communities.  They remain dependent upon the professional skills thought necessary to make maps.

The 18th century objection to the census, based on the biblical injunctions found in 2 Samuel now can make more sense. The census was an attempt by David to control the Israelite nation, much as the Ordnance Survey and Census were an enlightenment expression of the desire to control and order late 18th century Britain. God resisted this attempt because it was symbolic of a desire to replace God's ultimate kingship with an all powerful human king who had no need for God. Just because we have an all powerful executive in an elected parliament doesn't mean that the same dynamics aren't in operation - in fact the exercise of control through the development of technologies can now be more and more pervasive (Garland 2000). Nonetheless this attempt is bound to fail, as demonstrated in the previous chapter, cities are far too complex to be controlled. The attempt to control them merely creates chaos, for they have resistance hard-wired into them. True order can only happen through processes such as the P3-D model which bring together official and peoples’ maps and ultimately entrusts them to the care of those whose lives are determined by the maps.


[1] The outcome of the 2001 census is beginning to challenge the validity of the census.  There were far less people, especially young man, counted by the census than was expected.  People's mobility and reluctance in forms is undermining this basic planning tool.