Notes From the Margins…

With map and compass

  • November 05, 2011
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I’ve just spent a fantastic week in the Lake District, doing a course on walk leading and navigation.  It’s not a part of the UK I know at all well, but I now see what Wordsworth and Wainwright were on about.  It’s an amazingly dramatic and compelling landscape, with an endlessly variegated terrain that includes  high mountain passes and ridges, lakes, forests, boggy hillsides, fells and romantic isolated tarns, and tumbling waterfalls and mountain streams.

We were there at the peak of autumn, at just the point when the leaves still held the colour of bronze and burned gold, despite their daily thinning out from the constant buffeting of winds that sometimes reached 100 mph on the mountain tops.   It was a privilege to be out there in that world, watching it all happen as we stomped through bogs and clambered over the hills with our maps and compasses day after day, honing our navigation skills (hopefully) in the wind and occasional drizzle.

I’ve come to the world of maps somewhat late.   For much of my life I never looked at a map unless I had to, and even then it wasn’t to give them more than a cursory glance.  Now I find them fascinating and beautiful, and I’m constantly amazed at their ability to encompass even the slightest variation in the landscape.   Learning to read them is like learning another language and I also have something of a convert’s naive faith in what they reveal, since I tend to expect them to contain every necessary detail, which they don’t always do.   Sometimes they misrepresent things, and older maps don’t always incorporate changes in the landscape.

If maps aren’t always 100 percent reliable however, there is always the compass to get you out of trouble.   It’s such a simple, logical and ingenious instrument, and once again, coming to it as a novice, I’m revelling in the pleasures of taking and following bearings and finding myself (most of the time) in exactly the place where I expected to be.

All this,  and great company, good food and conversation.   It’s been a really magical few days.   During much of that time I had only intermittent Internet contact or no contact at all, and no newspapers, so I wasn’t able to blog.   Now I’m back in  the ‘real’ world, as filtered through newspapers and computer screens, and it really feels like returning from a more serene and orderly dimension to the familiar chaotic madhouse and the sound of the winds rattling my windowpane have been replaced by  the cracking timbers of a failing financial system, the empty pledges of venal politicians and the drumbeat of the next war.

The failed G20 summit, the looming collapse of the eurozone,  the tyranny of the markets, the politicians seeking new ways to chuck good money after bad and reduce other societies to Greek-style penury in the name of ‘reform’, all suggest that our leaders are travelling without a map and with no direction home.

Meanwhile  contingency plans by the UK Ministry of Defence to join in the Imperium and Israel’s planned assault on Iran are a dismal reminder that no matter how much ‘austerity’ is inflicted on their own populations, there will always be enough money for another cruise missile, and that  some governments, more than others,  are flying without any moral compass whatsoever.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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