“Everywhere you go, there you are.”(Attributed to Confucius)
When I think about the people who matter most to me, lines of connection radiate in an uneven starburst from where I am. I find myself at the centre of a mental map, visualising distances and direction, imperceptible threads arcing to wherever they are. Fainter strands reach to the other people and places that are the backdrop to my life.
Even when I think back to childhood, mental maps underlie the memories: the walk to my grandparents’ sedate house, the route from home to school past the Four Square Store where I once stole a chocolate bar, the careful right, left, right crossing of the one road on the way, in hats and gloves, to Sunday School. In my mind are layer on layer of maps laid down over the years, all with one thing in common: I’m always there, at the point of origin.
The first physical map I recall was a globe, the size of a small, perfectly round, rock melon. Attached to a low stand, it sat comfortably on my bookshelf, domestic in scale like an iron or toaster. It’s roundness was counteracted by the fine lines of latitude and longitude that divided its smooth surface into a neat geometric grid. The irregular shapes of the continents took permanent form in my mind, the dominant pink of the Commonwealth countries, former British colonies, stood out, so that later maps, organised on different principles, coloured differently, still strike me as being wrong; history and empire were imprinted at an early age.
As well as Britain and New Zealand floating insignificantly on opposite sides of the globe, pink filled the masses of Australia, Canada and India. Malaya was pink too. I noticed that because of the little square book that had arrived for Christmas. Aunty Jeanette was living in Singapore with her dashing, dark-eyed husband Uncle Calvin, a sailor. On each page was a colour picture of life in a Malayan kampong, with glossy children in vivid clothes, and trees that dripped liquid into tins. It was one of a series of books painting portraits of the world’s children, the literary version of a collection of dolls dressed in national costume. No book came from Fiji where Uncle Calvin was posted next, and Aunty Jeanette soon returned home to New Zealand, for Calvin had run off with all the money and her best friend, leaving her only the children, an empty bank account, and a broken heart.
Through books, the map of my mental world expanded outside the rural Waikato township of my childhood to include Toytown where Noddy drove his yellow car, London where James James Morrison’s mother got lost, and Buckingham Palace where Christopher Robin went with Alice. The English south coast featured too when the Famous Five holidayed at Kirrin Island and found a tin box containing a treasure map where X marked the spot, a map that signaled mystery, signposted the unknown, and promised wonderful discoveries. Then there was the story of Kathy at Marvin Grange in each week’s June magazine that depicted the jolly time to be had at boarding school with out-of-bounds escapades to the nearby village. It was a very English world of the imagination.
Films and television scarcely featured in my childhood or even teens, but the film version of Heidi, and later The Sound of Music, added the landscape of the Swiss Alps as well as cuckoo clocks and cowbells to my mental map of the wider world. The Himalayas were there too, a point of pride that a New Zealander had been the first person to get to the top of the worlds’ highest mountain and in the year that I was born.
However familiar they become, the places in books or films are flat images, faintly etched compared to the places I’ve been. The streets of Montmartre from Amélie came magically to life when I stayed where. Now seeing Paris on a map of France, it’s crammed with sounds, scents, street music, the touch of the breeze on an autumn morning, rich with impressions absorbed by being there.
I’ve got many a map stowed away in boxes of travel artifacts, some guiding the reader to what to see in a garden or gallery, others mapping out sweeping journeys across continents. But no matter where in the world I’ve been, no matter unobtrusive or unassuming I am, I can’t get away; even on the periphery of things, even as a tourist in a crowded city, I’m always there at the centre of everything.
In the hills of the Cinque Terre in Italy, walking tracks lead from one coastal or cliff-top village to another. A few years ago, I came with friends, to a clearing where five paths met. We were drawn to the large map board put up by the national park organisation. There was the familiar, prominent label, in English, ‘You are here’, to show our position. But that was all. Otherwise it was blank, an empty expanse of white space that offered no help with getting anywhere. It seemed absurd as well as somewhat disorienting. But it was entirely accurate. I was there, that was undoubtedly true, with the rest of the world spread out near and far around me. Stepping closer to the board, I could see in faded writing, like a nugget of ancient wisdom, the words ‘Make your own map’.