I’m back to maps and place names again, itching at the weekend to share with the young people at our monthly alternative evening worship the way they could view the world differently if the map spread out before them was upside down, divided across the Altantic rather than the Pacific, and set out on an ‘equal area’ projection, a world in which we lived tucked away in a remote corner and, instead of us, it is disappearing islands in the middle of the Pacific, once thought of as being at a safe distance from anywhere for nuclear tests, which take centre stage.
It wasn’t my turn. I ought to dig out for next month my battered copies of the resource material I developed from copies of Christian Aid’s Peter’s Projection in the 1980s and continued to use with clergy through the 1990s.
In fact I’ve been reading The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller, a poet with Jamaican and Rastafarian roots, published last year. It includes repeated exchanges of points of view between a cartographer and a rastaman, the latter saying On this island things fidget, even history - the landscape does not sit willingly as if behind an easel and Draw me a map of what you see, then I will draw a map of what you never see, and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose? and His work is to make thin and crushable all that is big and real as ourselves.
There is a circuitous road on Jamacia which still follows the route a Miss Musgrave took on her carriage so that she did not have to view native homes on her way to the Hall - and to think such spite should pass down to the present generation.
Brief quotations don’t carry the impact of the twists and illustrations in my initial two favourite poems which have the cartographer ask How much have we not seen or felt or heard because there is no word for it – at least no word we know? and the rastaman warn My bredda you cannot plot your way to Zion.
It also includes expositions of many Jamacian place names, which sent me back to Brian Friel who died in October. One of the first academic directions we were given when beginning to study at the Irish School of Ecumenics approaching thirty years ago was: if we wanted to understand the Irish situation a tiny bit better, read Brian Friel.
Obituaries highlighted above anything else his 1980 play Translations. I haven’t forgotten the way it has the English ordnance survey in 1833 fixing alien Irish place names with easy to handle English equivalents, the immediate use of which enabled them to direct military operations and oppression efficiently. Or the one map-making soldier finding the only language he had in common with an Irish girl was a tentatively exchange of Irish place names, which is how we leave them until she artlessly reveals that the process has continued as she tells her mother the names of all the north Norfolk villages around his home.
Meanwhile, this weekend our garden doesn’t know whether it is late autumn (the shrub on the left still has its final leaves to lose) or early spring (the one of the right is already in blossom), and there are other examples of the same confusion along the streets near-by. The partial job done by our categories, labels and maps is essential to carry our love and our understanding - but it is not enough, and it is dangerous when we think it is where we find our whole truth.