As a child I spent many hours drawing maps of imaginary lands to which in my mind I would often escape. Over time these worlds – and one in particular (see image below) – became a very real part of my existence; I knew its towns, forests, plains and mountains; I knew the seas by which it was surrounded, the lakes and rivers and potted histories of each location. I created characters and can still to this day remember them along with the geography of the world they inhabited.
As well as being a means of navigating my imagination, the maps were also guides to the real world. Whilst out walking, I would just as likely find myself walking in my fictional landscape and as such parallels between the real and the imagined were established. To some extent these parallels still exist but it wasn’t until I started researching trench maps of the area in which my great-great-uncle Jonah Rogers was killed (near Ypres) that I was again reminded of my fictional world.
I was interested in pinpointing the place in which Jonah Rogers was killed; to see what the terrain was like and thereby understand, at least in part, something of the world he would have known. One can often imagine that the trenches were more or less just rudimentary ditches cut into the ground in which soliders lived as best they could, just a matter of yards away from the enemy, and of course, in many respects that’s precisley what they were; but the trench system was actually very complex. Far from being two lines gouged into the ground, the trenches of the opposing armies were labyrinthine as the image below reveals.
This map shows an area just outside Ypres. One can see precisely how complex the system of trenches were and yet of course the map can only tell us so much. Sanctuary Wood (shown on the left of the detail above) was described in the diary of one officer as follows:
“Of the terrible and horrible scenes I have seen in the war, Sanctuary Wood is the worst… Sanctuary Wood in 1914 was a sanctuary, but today, Dante in his wildest imaginings never conceived a like.”
It’s hard to imagine Dante’s image of hell as being in any way less horrific than anything on earth, particularly when looking at the map above.
What one can also see on another part of this map are some of the names which soldiers gave to the trenches and the areas in which they were fighting. Often names that were difficult to pronnounce were changed so that, for example, Ploegsteert became Plug Street. However, in some cases, areas were given names that made sense in terms of their being familiar names from home.
On this image one can clearly see a place called Clapham Junction. Of course there was no Clapham Junction in Belgium before the war, but by naming unfamiliar (and often utterly destroyed areas) with familiar names, soldiers and officers could, one assumes, navigate areas more easily, whether physically or in terms of reconaissance and planning. To plan attacks on places which have become muddied wastelands (to put it mildly) with few features remaining (the woods on the maps, shown as collections of lollypop trees were of course little more than burned splinters) one would need names, just as one would need names for the complex network of trenches. Could it be that by naming places with names from home, such reduced and barren landscapes (the ‘topography of Golgotha’ as Wilfred Owen called the Western Front) would appear as belonging in some way to the soldiers who fought there – was it a way of inspiring them?
The closest map – in terms of date – I could find relating to my great-great-uncle’s war, was one of St. Julien which dates from July 1915, just two months after his death in the Second Battle of Ypres. I’d wanted to get an idea of the trench system he would have been known at first hand and as I looked at the trenches shown (only German trenches were shown on this map) I found a road named after my home town; Oxford Road. Ironically, alongside this road was a cottage (one must assume there was little left of it at the time) which had been dubbed Monmouth Cottage – my great-great-uncle was from Monmouthshire.
I couldn’t help but think there was something in this naming of unfamiliar places with more familiar names which paralleled thoughts I’d had as regards my family heritage and in particular how researching it has helped me relate more easily to the past.
History is of course full of gaps. If we try and picture a place as it appeared at a given date we have to use our imaginations to fill in the holes where, for example, buildings have been razed. If we read reports or stories about events in the past we have to use our imaginations to understand the moment as fully as possible, to understand how the average person responded at the time. In doing so, we project a part of ourselves onto the past, something which is of course familiar (see ‘From Dinosaurs to Human Beings,’ OVADA Residency Blog, 2007).
Like my childhood maps of invented places, my family tree is in many ways a map of a fictional landscape, or rather a route through it. That is not to say of course that my family’s past is itself a fiction, but rather that history, in terms of how we see it in our minds is. History is in many ways a wasteland having been obliterated by time and yet there are parts of its landscape which still remain standing despite the tumult. Extant buildings, contemporaneous documents all act as pointers to a disappeared world, a world which also hides untold numbers of anonymous people. To help me navigate this landscape , I can invent my own names just as I did as a child, only this time the names will relate to, or be those of my ancestors; they will refer to dates and facts I have gleaned about their lives. In this sense I am labelling an unfamiliar, temporal landscape with familiar names, a landscape that like the battlefields of the Front has been all but destroyed. I’m filling in the gaps, mapping myself not only onto the physical world but also the past.
The worlds I invented as a child were in many ways idealised views of the real world with unspoilt forests, mediaeval cities and unpolluted seas. What faced the man at the Front was the opposite, a terrible vision of what the world could be or had become. Labelling such a world with names like Piccadilly, Buckingham Palace Road, Marylebone Road, Liverpool Street, Trafalgar Square and so on, in some ways gave it a more human face; where there were gaps, such names would fill them in perhaps with memories of home.
In the end maps are there to guide us, to reveal something about a place or perhaps a person; it all depends of course on what the map represents. We might be looking at maps of countries or maps of the brain – Katherine Harmon’s book ‘Personal Geographies and other Maps of the Imagination‘ is a great resource in this respect. When I look at the map of my invented world, I am not so much presented with a means of navigating a fictional world but rather a map of my own childhood. Looking at the place names I can in fact see the real world as it was at the time. The map therefore becomes a representation of something entirely different. The same could be said of the Trench Maps. They are maps of something quite unimaginable; if we took one and stood on a battlefield today it might offer us a hint of the way things were. But with the names of the trenches, roads, farms and cottages, they become maps of somewhere entirely different – a fictional place built only from memories. But those memories conjured by the names listed above – Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square etc. – are our memories, we can only imagine Trafalgar Square as it is today or as it is within our own minds. What we can establish, with the help of these maps, is an understanding of a sense of dislocation, between the solider in the trenches and his life back home. They serve to make those who fought and died in the war much more real.
With regards a map of my family tree I can place my ancestors in different parts of the country but of course none of them lived their lives standing still. Again there are gaps to be filled and whereas to fill in the gaps of history one can use one’s imagination, with regards the mapping of my ancestry and individual people, it is through walking around the places that they inhabited that these gaps can be filled. To close, I return to the blog entry I made during a residency at OVADA. In it I wrote:
“These invented worlds became, as I grew up, the ‘invented’ or imagined landscapes of Oxford’s past; landscapes that were – just as they still are – created from fragments, parts of the past which are still extant in the city; old buildings, walls, objects and so on. Between these structures, these fragments, I would fill the gaps, with my own imagination, with thoughts derived from my own experience. The city’s past and the past in general, as it exists within my mind, is then, to use the metaphor of cloning in Jurassic Park, a cloned dinosaur. The extant buildings, structures and objects within museums, are like the mosquitoes trapped inside the amber. They are broken strands of DNA. All that is required is for me to fill the gaps, and this I can do with my own DNA. I am in effect, the frog.
This metaphor is interesting in that DNA patterns are, of course, unique to everyone. My DNA is different to everybody else’s as there’s is to mine. Therefore, using my imagination to plug in the gaps of the past, means that the ‘past’ will comprise large parts of my own experience; my dinosaur will contain elements of my own being. (See ‘Postcard 1906’). But although my DNA is unique, it is nonetheless derived from my own past, elements have been passed down by my ancestors from time immemorial. The code which makes me who I am, comprises parts of people I know now (parents and grandmothers), people I knew (grandfathers and great-grandmother) and people lost to the past altogether (great-great grandparents and so on). What interests me about this, is that, through stating above how ‘my dinosaur will contain elements of my own being’ I can now see that ‘my dinosaur’ will contain elements of my own being, which is itself comprised of elements of hundreds – thousands – of people, the majority of whom I will of course never know and who have been dead for centuries. I like to think therefore, that ‘my dinosaur’ and my imagination aren’t entirely unique.”
In the traditional diagram of the family tree each individual is isolated, joined to others by means of a single line, almost as if they appeared at one point, moved a bit and passed the baton on to the next in line. Of course things are much more complex than this; individuals overlap in terms of the length of their lives and if we were to try and represent an individual’s journey through life, the line would be impossibly complex. Inevitably there are gaps which as I’ve said I can fill (at least, in part) by walking in the places they would have walked. In Wales, where my Grandmother grew up I found it incredible to think that this place I’d never been to and the streets, lanes and hills I had never walked, had all played a part in my existence. Without them I would not be here, or indeed there. I was then filling in the gaps, like the frog DNA in Jurassic Park, but the dinosaur I spoke of in the extract above was not so much History in this case, but me.