Six crinkled maps are unfurled. An air of expectancy gathers. Stuart Delves explores how these humble tools are a crucial starting point for any journey, but especially when you need to write the future.
Quo vadis?*: a question that must echo in the corridors of many a higher education institution these uncertain days; a question that was top of the agenda at our recent Writing Your Future seminar in Nottingham. So, we asked participants to bring two things: their favourite futuristic novel and their favourite map. The choice of novels was surprising, insightful and touching – not as dystopian as we’d imagined – but the relaying of that particular session can wait for another time. It was the sharing of maps that we were keenly anticipating.
The Walton Hotel, in a leafy Nottingham suburb of Georgian villas, was a suitably quirky venue for our idiosyncratic approach to immersive learning. The meeting or conference room where we held the majority of our sessions – as if ordered up by an avuncular Prospero – sported a retro travel theme. Around the comfy sofas and armchairs to the side of the boardroom table were assorted stacks of labelled trunks, suitcases with straps and buckles and petite valises.
They provided unexpected yet assistive metaphors for our explorations of how best and most compellingly to convey the journeys ahead of all of us, with their delights and obstacles, diversions, good runs and distant – possibly, almost mythic – destinations.
Crucial for any journey – especially one beyond the boondocks of the future – is a map. We can talk about maps in terms of metaphor of course, and indeed maps themselves are metaphors in that they depict tarmac roads in blazing lines of blue or red and conjure forests and mountains by means of suitable palettes, shadings and the curvaceous waves of contours. But there’s something in the thing itself: its colour; its materiality. I’m not aware of any statistic, but I’d wager my donkey and his saddle packs, that 8 out of 10 people love maps. They open possible worlds, they’re the cordite of dreams – personal and shared – they’re rallying points, the canvases of field marshals and mad King Lears.
They open possible worlds, they’re the cordite of dreams – personal and shared – they’re rallying points, the canvases of field marshals and mad King Lears.
Favourite maps tend to be of places well-kent, routes often taken, sounds sailed on summer days, hills tramped to the song of pipits and curlew. What were we looking for in asking people to bring their favourite maps? The pleasure, I think. Some wellspring of richness: mineral of the soul. The ‘map session’ announced, there was a crisp air of expectancy. Chairs cleared to the side, we stood around the table, shoulders hunched in close proximity. These were the offerings, presented one by one.
An Ordnance Survey map of the area around Fort William, with tales to tell of Ben Nevis and the Grey Corries, and being lost on the mountain in the gloaming. A tourist map of South Devon, with the scantest of navigational use, more the promise of outings and bounty the English Riviera holds. A GPS route on a smart phone, tracking the journey home, at the end of a long week, from Liverpool to Cambridge. A city plan of Amsterdam with its wide fan of canals: a rendezvous, a shaft of light upon the water, the scent of Spring. A waterproof map of the Pentland Hills, scale 1:25000, Stevenson’s ‘Hills O’ Hame’, with its evocative Scald Law, Crooked Rig and Old Kirk Road. A carte randonnee of the Ile d”Ouessant (Ushant in English) the north westernmost point of metropolitan France and an island, for the proponent, with a touch of Ariel’s magic. And lastly, on an Ipad screen, Harry Beck’s classic 1933 map of the London Underground: beautiful, simple, reductive design, stripping the sprawling, spidery underground network down to a pleasingly neat and useful diagram of coloured criss-crossing lines.
The session was a highpoint, amongst several others, in an intense, productive and laughter-filled two days at the Walton. Memories, longings, aesthetics, joy, energy were all identifiable elements in the response to these cartographic gems. All elements, we suggested, that might go into the writing of your future, whatever form of plan, vision or strategy that might take. Including a richness of language, feeling and metaphor might be a tempting way forward: it might indeed transform the experience of writing, which in turn, might transform the experience of reading.
*Or literally, where are you going?
Stuart Delves is a business writer and tone of voice consultant. Based in Edinburgh, he has worked with universities in the region to bring alive research impact and strategy through writing.
If you enjoyed this blog, you might enjoy Stuart’s other blog ‘The ABC of Space‘: a conversation with Professor James Dunlop from the University of Edinburgh about the universe, metaphors and research funding.
The next Writing your Future will take place on Thursday 3 – Friday 4 May at Hornington Manor near York.