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View from Vitalia: Of maps, traps and mediums

We don’t need to be clairvoyants to read maps.

Did you know that 16-22 October marks National Map Reading Week? I didn’t either until I received an email from Ordnance Survey (OS). I ended up on their mailing list after my E&T feature ‘Mapping the UK for over 225 years’ was published last  March.

In the words of the OS managing director Nick Giles, “National Map Reading Week provides the chance to polish up on map reading skills.” Well, there seems to be a lot of polishing up to be done, for according to the OS's own statistics, the average British person ends up going the wrong way, or getting completely lost, 24 times a year (in my case, 24 times a week would be closer to the truth, particularly since I acquired my loquacious state-of-the art satnav).

So let us read maps! But before you start doing so, a warning: do not try to find on them a country called Vitalia (see the title of this new blog of mine), which does not exist and is but a figment of my imagination.  Or simply a joke. As someone who was (jokingly, no doubt) monikered Vitali Vitaliev, which prompted one wit of a reviewer to conclude that my parents loved me so much that they had named me twice, I have the right for a joke in return.

Back to map reading. I have always been drawn to geographical curiosities, like European mini-states (on which I’ve written a book), enclaves and exclaves (on which I’ve written a book too) and remote little islands (on which I haven’t written a book yet). One of the latter, the island of St Helena in South Atlantic, has just made news with the long-awaited first ever scheduled airline service touching down on 14 October – a real breakthrough for over 5000 St Helenians, who like to refer to themselves as ‘Saints’, for until then the only way of getting to the island was by sea, or, to be more exact, by the RMS St Helena from South Africa – a journey that took almost a whole week.

About 16 years ago, I nearly made it to St Helena on a journalistic assignment. My accommodation on the island and the cabin on board RMS St Helena were already booked, and I was stuffing my suitcases (mostly with video cassettes as gifts for the islanders who didn’t have television then and probably because of that, according to numerous sociological surveys, boasted the world’s most cultured children), when my then editor from the Daily Telegraph called to say that they wanted me to abort my St Helena trip and join the world’s most expensive Around the Globe by a Private Jet package tour – for free, no doubt, as a guest of the tour operator. They later told me that for those who were not ‘guests’ of the tour operator, the price of the 28-day trip was $75,000 per person, drinks not included! “Why can’t you send someone else there?” I asked. “Because native British journalists would feel obliged to write nice things about such an expensive tour, and you Russians don’t care!” he explained. “Indeed, we don’t,” I replied before explaining that I was actually Ukrainian, which didn’t make any difference to his decision. So I’ve never made it to St Helena. Not yet…

But I’ve digressed. The interesting thing about that first flight by the South African carrier Airlink  from O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg was that it came over a year late: the airport, which cost British taxpayers £285 million, was completed in May 2016, but its opening was delayed by adverse wind conditions. The flight, incidentally, was 45 minutes late too, which reminded me of the 1980s Moscow where I once ordered a cab two weeks in advance of the journey and it was still 40 minutes late to arrive…

Well, what can I say? Better late than never.

To be realistic, even with the new weekly flight, my chances of ever visiting St Helena are not that high. But I hope to still have time (and money) to visit the tiny island of Foula in the Shetland Archipelago of Scotland. This pocket-handkerchief-sized (5 square miles) patch of land in the Atlantic Ocean was until recently the last unmapped bit of the British Isles. Not any longer. The above-mentioned OS – in a welcome break from digital and virtual-reality mapping which now constitutes 95 per cent of the company’s output – has just released the first ever custom-made map of the island in its world-famous OS Explorer series. Only for that map, the normal OS Explore scale of 1:25 000 had to be extended to 1:7 500; otherwise, I suspect, the island would have looked on it no larger than a dot, whereas on the freshly printed and spacious OS Explorer map it is approaching its life-size dimensions.

In short, a tiny bit more map reading for us during the National Map Reading Week.

To celebrate the mapping of the last unmapped spot of the British territory, OS has generously supplied each of the residents of Foula, including children and babies (if any), with his or her own personal copy of the map. Don’t think the respected map maker is going to go bust due to its generosity, for the population of the island is 38. Not 38 thousand, but just 38! I doubt any of them will need the map to find their way to work and then back home even if they somehow get stranded anywhere on the island’s  6.5km of public roads…

Not being a resident of Foula, I received a copy of the map too. It is now going to be one of the gems of my ever-growing map collection, alongside another super-collectable and therefore rare OS map – of an area of Mars known as Western ArabiaTerra, the map that was already used to approximate the Rover route in ‘The Martian’ film. I am sure it will also be helpful in a real landing on Mars now being prepared by NASA.

British cartographers are undoubtedly on top of their game. The only other map-makers who could compete with them are their former Soviet colleagues. I can vouch for it myself, and if my assurances are not enough, I invite you all to open the recently published by the University of Chicago Press album “The Red Altas. How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World” by John Davies and Alexander J Kent.

You may not be aware of the fact that all maps in the Soviet Union carried deliberate errors – not the so-called 'Trap Streets' for copyright protection, but the purposeful paranoia-driven deviations to mislead some mysterious Western spies. Maps, apart from giving joy to both real-life and vicarious travellers, could also be powerful weapons. To quote the authors of the above-mentioned book, “Maps are instruments of power”.

There were few (if any) mistakes – deliberate or other – in the Soviet cartographers' military maps of the West, as proved convincingly by over 350 extracts from them reproduced in ‘The Red Atlas’. To me, they brought back memories of the lessons in Military Tactics at my 1970s Soviet university (military training was obligatory for the students), at which we – for some obscure reason - used the extremely well-produced maps of the area of West Germany around the town of Funfhausen (!).

Indeed, Soviet Cold War maps of the West - products of the 40-year-long (from 1950 to 1990) global topographic mapping programme, initiated by Stalin - were truly spectacular, both technologically and artistically. At the recent ‘Maps of the 20th Century’ exhibition in the British Library, it gave me the creeps to look at the large 1980s map of Brighton, UK, as a possible nuclear strike target, showing and describing in its super-detailed legend, every single dwelling, warehouse and workshop in that unsuspecting British city. 

Same with the maps, reproduced in ‘The Red Atlas’: it feels sinister to see the familiar British, American, French or German toponyms, rendered in Russian, as if the places in question had been already occupied by the Soviet Army and attached to the vast ‘evil empire’.

Luckily, that is an extremely unlikely scenario, and one doesn’t have to be a clairvoyant to foresee it. The question is whether one can rely on the skills of those who do claim to see the future?

I recently received an email from Arthur Conan Doyle Centre in Edinburgh on whose mailing list I – as Conan Doyle’s huge fan – have been for a while. The subject of the email was “Demonstration cancellation”. “We regret to inform you,” it started before explaining that the demonstration of mediumship and clairvoyance planned for the following Saturday, had been cancelled “due to unforeseen circumstances”.  

Need I say more?





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