Caught in a map trap

The Southern bias of the BBC’s new weather map reminds Hugh Pearman of the inherent problem of cartography: what you see isn’t always what you get

Who was it who said that Edinburgh was not so much the Athens of the North, as the Trondheim of the South? The BBC should have considered that viewpoint before producing its new Southern-biased computer graphic weather map. The Beeb has corrected it slightly now, but still hasn’t tilted the map enough to make Scotland look sufficiently important for the licence payers there.

But that’s the problem – or the wonder – of mapping. Maps are, as I’ve said in this column before vis-a-vis the Ordnance Survey, an intoxicating mixture of fact and fiction. There may not be dragons on them these days, but there are plenty of strange symbols that have nothing to do with the lie of the land. Mapping is never definitive, always open to interpretation. You can navigate by them, but that doesn’t mean the places you find look anything like you’d expect.

If you use the London Underground, you know how slyly Harry Beck’s Tube map fictionalises the capital. It makes outlying districts appear far closer than they are. It separates stations that are in reality very close, and pretends others are neat interchanges when, in fact, you have to walk miles. Nor is it fixed, squirming around as new bits are added. All in the cause of graphic neatness and clarity.

The longest-running fiction in mapping is famously Mercator’s Projection and its many variants, all of which try, with varying degrees of success, to unwrap the skin of the world and present it as a flat rectangle. The consequence is that land masses towards the top and bottom of the map are expanded to fill the space, making them seem far larger than they are. Greenland may be very big, but it’s nowhere near as big as it is conventionally shown. Equatorial Africa and South America, on the other hand, are reasonably accurate. So you have a reality that gets less real the further south or north you go.

Then – as with the BBC and its weather map – there’s the question of what angle you view the world from, anyway. Because of the historical and economic importance of Europe, North America and the Northern hemisphere generally, our maps give the North Atlantic pride of place. There’s America on one side, Europe on the other, Britain looking as mighty as Mercator allows, and so on, reading to the right, as you cross Asia into the Far East.

A map based on the economies of the Pacific Rim, and, in particular, China, would look very different. No doubt they have such maps, but again you’re up against a neatness problem: given that the Pacific pretty much fills one side of the globe, cartographers with their Western world view still have a big problem putting that ocean in the middle.

What’s near, what’s far? For me recently, a tectonic shift happened in the earth’s crust beneath London. Anything east of the River Lea was previously a long way away. Now it’s next door. I haven’t moved house; I’ve discovered an overground railway that trundles laterally across London and joins the bits together.

And this makes me wonder: if Harry Beck got it right with his perceptual Tube map, maybe we should re-draw the world according to the routes of budget airlines. That puts Prague about the same distance away as Dublin. Depending on where you start from, of course.

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