Monday, 11 May 2015

Treasures rediscovered

I've finally made a determined start on clearing out my attic. I have been accumulating stuff in there for the last ten years, starting when the attic was in fact Mum and Dad's. Especially since they died in 2009, I've used the attic more and more as a very convenient place to store a multitude of things it seemed best to hang onto for the time being. Things I can't store 'downstairs' because I have no 'spare room'. I live in a bungalow.

The project is actually spurred on by two important considerations. First, once it's empty, it will be easy to upgrade the insulation in the attic: the existing insulation isn't up to modern standards. Second, a time will come - many years from now, but come it will - when I won't feel inclined to climb up into the attic much, if at all. It would be best to remove everything now, while I'm still nimble.

In principle, everything presently up in the attic may get thrown away or destroyed - on the basis that if I don't use it in my day-to-day life, then it's inessential and can go. But obviously there are going to be exceptions. I have been finding items not seen for years, and some of them might be described as 'treasures' - not because they are valuable, but because they have a connection with my childhood, or my teens. I want to preserve stuff like this, and not discard it.

For instance, yesterday I went through several boxes of books, magazines and brochures that were lurking in the shadows up in the attic. Most of this could be bagged up for the landfill bin or popped into the recycling bin. But some of the books found a place again on one or other of the bookshelves in my study. One was a battered little volume entitled Stewart's Modern Geography:

I bought this at a secondhand bookshop by the harbour at Padstow in Cornwall in 1970, when I was eighteen. I'm sure I wouldn't have paid much for it. Back then, it was still possible to buy bound nineteenth-century books for very little, particularly a school textbook like this one. I bought it primarily for its maps.

Opening it, the publishing date of MDCCCXLVI is printed - that's 1846. So it describes the world as it was in the first half of the nineteenth century, in language intended for young scholars but hardly suitable for them. It all looks rather formidable, a textbook full of stilted grammar, turgid with facts that I imagine had to be learned by rote - and woe betide the young scholar who could not regurgitate them perfectly. It was written by a man in Holy Orders. I imagine he was a precise, formal man with a short temper and a peppery disposition.

It begins: The earth which we inhabit is not, as was long supposed, a vast extended plain... Well, if the pupil had to be reassured of this, then presumably the book was meant to be an fairly elementary introduction to what was known of the world in 1846!

The section on Greece is typical. Not at all my idea of a worthwhile description of the country and its characteristics. Nary a map of mineral deposits; nor a map showing the first railway routes; nor a table of shipping tonnages handled by the main ports; nor any graphs showing the production of samian wine or the population of goats, at yearly intervals. Just an opinionated potted history, followed by a useless glossary of towns, rivers, mountains and islands.

The young scholar is told that under the Ottoman oppression the Greeks have degenerated from the lofty and gallant spirit of former times, and have effectively become lower than worms. No wonder Lord Byron felt compelled to intervene.

Clearly the objective was to fill the head of youngsters with a medley of facts (or factoids) that they could repeat parrot-fashion, without much understanding or analysis.

The Reverend Alexander Stewart: Boy! Under what yoke were the Greeks oppressed?
First Scholar: The yoke of the Turkish domination, sir!
The Reverend Alexander Stewart: Boy! By whose interposition was their independence secured?
Second Scholar: The armed interposition of Britain, Russia, and France, in pursuance of a treaty concluded in London, sir!
The Reverend Alexander Stewart: And you, boy! To whom did they offer the crown?
Third Scholar: To Prince Leopold, now King of Belgium, sir!

I'm not impressed.

I said I'd bought this book for its maps, and indeed these are rather good. The best one is of Africa:

Look at that. It's 1846, and most of Africa south of the Sahara is marked with the word UNEXPLORED. How that must have fired up the imaginations of the young persons grinding their way through the section on Greece. Unexplored: how wonderful! A chance for adventure! The detail for West Africa does however offer a sobering reminder of why adult Europeans with guns might also be interested in going to Africa. It's in the names on the map. The Grain Coast. The Ivory Coast. The Gold Coast. The Slave Coast.


  1. Hard to part with any books... We have some older maps for you to peruse when you drop by, remember to ask.

  2. Amazing maps - so much so that I downloaded the one of Africa for a closer look and some cross-referencing via Google. The mountain range, north of the unexplored bit, was known as the Mountains of Kong. It doesn't exist, but appeared on maps into the 1880's. And I might have gone a lifetime without realizing there was a place in N.Africa called Twat! That one's genuine - it's an oasis.


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