Last train out, maps and other tales

Richard Lutz looks back in angst at the past week.


Well, maybe not a week exactly. My most cogent thought was getting the last train out of London during the elegantly named Storm Doris.

The rail system pretty much shut down with the weather. My 19.03 to Birmingham disappeared from the big board at Euston and, along with about eight million other northbound travellers, I was caught in rampant chaos. We hopped the last train at a platform and entered the sardine can of a carriage rammed with standing passengers. Lord knows what was going on in the capital as we chugged out. Last train out.

I was in London for the 20th century Map Exhibition at the British Library. Anything that could be drawn or measured during the past 117 years was there. Among the best was the original cynical 1916 Sykes-Picot map that drew up the (European) spheres of influence in the Mid East and literally created the plan for the mess we have today. “You have Syria…and we’ll take Palestine and you can keep Mesopotamia…”  That sort of thing. 

Another eye opener was the map of Hobbitland by Tolkien. It seemed he drew the contours and topography of his fictional world. Then he proceeded to write his renowned tales as he viewed his hand-drawn maps.

A third was Mercador’s original 1560 drawing of the world. Okay, that wasn’t 20th century. But it was in a book of old maps and I guess that counted. And another thing that raised an eye was poet John Betjamin’s personal maps that he used as he criss-crossed Blighty for his famed description of the British Isles back in the 1930’s. All his doodles and personal notes were tattooed all over the folded things. Good to know he was as much a chaotic scribbler as me with notes no-one could read decades (or even minutes) later.

Moving on, I could have used a map, a map of any kind , as we veered around Worcestershire’s Wyre Forest near the Severn. Trails twist, turn, unmarked. Valleys dip, ravines cut through, old rail lines chug in a straight line. It is pure geometry. Changing by the minute as we take a turn.

The woods were silent on our walk. Winter was just starting to crack open to reveal early signs of spring: primula, catkins, snowdrops and croci. Oscar the dog was having a field day with the smells of the new birth forest. His nose seemed to be in every nook, cranny, old log that he passed. And, of course, he loved the mud.

Wyre Forest did help me forget getting another tooth ripped from my face. There was no choice. I always have this memory of a Hogarth print (a map of pain?) of a patient in agony as something bloody was wrenched from his mouth. But these days with numbing chems pumped into my gum, the extraction was simple, weird, almost painless. The dentist pushed down (it felt) and something was pulled out.

“Do you want to see the thing?” the dentist asked.

Well, yes and no.

An hour later as the anaesthetic drained away, I felt like my jaw had been kicked by a horse. Another part of my body disappearing forever.