7 January 2010

Mapping a Town with Purpose

This map of Londonderry is to be found in Soho Square, a collection of writing and images published in 1993. The chart is by the illustrator Benoît Jacques. In it Derry is a wild collection of, seemingly, haphazard figures, lines and curves all tossed together in a rectangle. If a map is, at least partly, an attempt to make sense of the world then this it not really a map at all. It appears without purpose. It is a picture of confusion, designed to exclude, designed to make things impossible.

Click through for a closer look.

However the image maybe an accurate portrayal of how we feel about a city when it is new to us. Sure enough, Mr Jacques is not local. Understanding the layout of new streets and lanes can be hard enough. Then there is all that history to negotiate, the interfaces where various groupings mingle or clash. Derry could confuse a foreigner visitor on many levels. So, perhaps this is a good map after all.

Detail from the map.

Soho Square is a strong collection. It features John McGahern, Tom Paulin, Edna O'Brien and Roy Foster among many others. Their writings were put together by Colm Tóibín and in Tóibín's introduction he tells us the true story of a man who lived in his home town, Enniscorthy, when he was a boy. It seems he was a troubled man, one night he ran through the town smashing the windows of businesses.

He did not break the windows at random; he broke the windows of the big stores, and the more unpleasant, uppity shops. He spared the smaller shops, or the shops owned by pleasant, nice shopkeepers. He knew the town like a sociologist [he had] developed a sharp sense of which shopkeepers deserved to have their windows broken and which did not.

Now there’s a map. The man, even as he rampaged, had a precise image of Enniscorthy in his mind. One of the elements his map charted was conviviality. This is the kind of town map, although not necessarily of conviviality, most of us can identify with. Jacques’ map is only the image of a first glance. Most mental maps are intricate but not at all haphazard. They will be networked with lines and intersections as fine as Jacques’ but each will be as purposeful, studied and, to us, necessary as the lines on a circuit board.