Simon Garfield

I love maps. I recall last year spending an inordinate amount of time in Standfords map shop in Covent Garden last year, much of it spent staring at a map of London with the tube lines marked on in their familiar colours. What was interesting was seeing where these lines ran in real life, freed from the familiar, practical but geographically inaccurate tube map many of us are familiar with.

Given this fascination I have, I was delighted to receive Simon Garfield’s On the Map for Christmas from my beautiful and intelligent girlfriend. Garfield (pictured above) has edited Time Out and written for The Independent and The Observer. His previous book, Just My Type explored the history of fonts. On the Map is a charming and near-comprehensive study of maps and cartography that delves into the human stories behind the creation, discovery, study, trade and theft of these enticing objects.

I devoured the book quickly and when asked, Garfield was generous enough to answer some questions I had regarding his work.

What prompted you to begin writing about maps?
The simple answer is, my American publisher asked me. I don’t even think he knew much about my obsession with maps, so it was an inspired suggestion. I’d been interested in maps since I was about 10, taking the London tube one stop and thinking how exotic Harry Beck’s famous map was – the thought of going all the way from one end of the line to another seemed an impossible journey. After that I soon became interested in the power of maps to tell so many important human stories.

The book covers a very broad range of territory, from early cartography to mapping the brain, via fictional game maps and Google Earth. When you began writing, did you expect to cover so many different subjects?
I knew the book would be very varied and wide-ranging, and I was keen to look at mapping far beyond the two-dimensional folding variety. But the problem after I began writing was what to leave out. I didn’t want to write an encyclopaedia, and I knew I wanted to keep the book at a reasonable length so that it remained accessible and affordable. So in the end I had to jettison a couple of themes – including military mapping – and concentrate on others.

On the Map is a treasure trove of interesting characters and quirky tales; which was your favourite to learn about during the writing process?
I was really eager to bring the book alive by interviewing a lot of people about their own cartographic tales and experience. So while I liked telling all the stories about explorers making things up and cartographers inventing fake mountain ranges, most of all I enjoyed asking  Patrick Moore about Mars, Graham Arader about his map dealing and Peter Bellerby about how to make a globe. [The tale of the transportation of Winston Churchill’s globe, which was used during his strategizing in World War II and told in the book, is a story surely ripe for portraying on screen; either as a historical thriller or farcical caper].

You elaborate on this in the book, but could sum up why you think people are so drawn to maps and treasure them so greatly?
Principally because they tell our stories so well. You can tell so much about human nature and discovery from a simple sheet of paper.  And of course they can be beautiful things, and provide all the inspiration needed for adventure without leaving your armchair.

Finally, please could you tell us about your next book?
I’m writing a book about letter writing – a history and celebration of the form, and probably some stuff about email too…

On the Map is published by Profile Books and is out now in hardback. See for further information.

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