With the world moving incrementally faster every time Tim Cook puts on a presentation at the Steve Jobs Theater, clicking his little remote-control box to sprinkle more magic fairy dust on the lives of Appleitis sufferers everywhere, it’s easy to forget that, well within the scope of living memory, OS meant something other than “operating system”.
And that wasn’t all it meant. “OS” was in fact a type of spell, an enchanted password allowing the privileged holder through a glorious gateway into a galaxy of arcane (or obvious) symbols and legends, all presented in a blizzard of dazzling detail. That secret door opened to reveal the black-and-white dotted line that denoted a single-track railway; the thrilling red “Danger Area” box marked a firing range; the little glowing beacon was a lighthouse and the black dot with a cross was a church with a spire; crossed swords, plus a date, commemorated a battleground; minute trees meant an orchard; and fanatically precise orange contour lines, impossibly squashed together yet with built-in numbers showing elevation, indicated where the ground rose steepest.
All right, so none of it was that secret – even though the British national mapping authority, called the Ordnance Survey, had military origins, hence its title – and those in the know were actually those in the millions. But early 19th-century twitchiness about possible French invasion, which necessitated decent maps for the British troops if they were to fire in the right direction and rebuff Johnny Foreigner, can have been of negligible interest a few decades ago to all those happy families setting off in their dependable Ford Anglias for their summer holidays. Much more problematic, in the cramped shotgun seat, was how to unfold a large, large-scale map while avoiding bashing the gearstick, and, even more difficult and usually impossible, folding it back up again along the original creases, thereby avoiding unsightly bulges.
It was never really true that life was all about the journey, not the destination – because the destination had sun (maybe), sand, sea and ice-cream – but OS maps certainly put some fun, and some heated discussions, into working out where one was going. Those were the days.
And what, you might wonder, does any of this have to do with literature? The answer is that in these fraught years of what I’m calling Digidom, the OS map, possibly the most cumbersome, old-fashioned bit of kit imaginable, has become not just a pointer to Prestatyn or Polperro, Canterbury or Carlisle, but a wider health indicator helping to signify the condition of the two basic types of travel book: the “literary” volume artfully mastered by the likes of Alexander Frater and Jonathan Raban; and the travel guide, made wildly popular not too many years ago in, for example, its Lonely Planet and Rough Guides guises.
As you embark on your jolly holidays this summer, to wherever it may be, consider for a moment whether you’d like to spend a chunk of it staring at a small, warm screen that’s useless in bright sunshine, or if you’d like to rediscover the joy of something created from (sustainably grown) trees. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be in Britain to benefit: Hong Kong, for instance, has its own OS equivalent in the Countryside Series of maps, beloved of hikers and covering even the territory’s most confounding corners in impeccable detail.
So if even something as unwieldy as a giant OS map at one metre by 90cm can have recovered its distinguished status, are not the stylish wordsmiths and the roaming fact compilers also shifting books from the shelves again?
Yes. Britain’s Ordnance Survey agency recently reported a seven percent increase in the sales of paper maps for 2017-18, with a downloadable version thrown in free every time a “real” map was sold. As the Ordnance Survey’s Nick Giles put it: “In many industries you’re seeing traditional, printed products in decline while digital is on the rise. But in OS map sales we see both formats working hand in hand. People are realising the importance of mapping. The world has gone mobile and it’s handy to have maps on your phone. But you can never rely on technology 100 percent. Phones run out of battery power, or even end up being dropped in puddles.”
Taking the guidebook industry’s pulse regularly is Hong Kong-based Pete Spurrier, publisher at Blacksmith Books, whose catalogue consists of “mostly non-fiction with a Hong Kong connection. People are still buying paper books,” he says, confirming the now-familiar suspicion that, “as with any new technology, e-books had a quick initial growth spurt, but they’ve peaked and we will see equilibrium reached between paper and e-book sales.” Startlingly, he adds: “For the books we’ve published in both paper and e-editions, the balance of sales is 80-20 in favour of good old paper.
“Maybe people still like the tactile element of printed books, or the simplicity of them, or maybe they already spend enough time looking at screens,” says Spurrier. “From a paper book publisher’s point of view, we take care to lay out words on the page in a way that makes it comfortable to read: the number of lines per page, the space between them, the column width, choice of typeface, kerning and everything else. But when a book is converted to an e-book, that artistry goes out of the window.”
Spurrier is also at liberty to contribute expert analysis from a writer’s point of view. “I’ve written three hiking guidebooks [The Serious Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong; The Leisurely Hiker’s Guide and The Heritage Hiker’s Guide] for another local publisher, and these are reprinted every other year or so,” he says. “And guidebooks generally are some of Blacksmith’s bestsellers. Books helping people navigate Chinese food, family days out, street markets and so on always sell well.”
As for the other branch of the genre, Hong Kong and China have inspired innumerable timeless entries in the ledger of travel “literature”, the best examples of which might remain in print as long as there is print. It takes no prompting to bring to mind Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux, Gavin Young’s Slow Boats to China and Hong Kong, by Jan Morris. But you can judge for yourself whether an inveterate snobbery divides the two hemispheres of travel writing. Morris, the doyenne of writers in the literary camp, once told this reporter (and the South China Morning Post): “I don’t write travel.”
“What do you do?”
“I don’t know really. My books are mannered. They’re calculated, although they might not seem like it. More style than substance.
“I hate ‘travel writing’, and I hate being thought of as a travel writer,” she said. “What I don’t do is try to tell people what they will find in a place. I don’t care what they find. All I’m doing is describing the effect of a place on one particular sensibility – mine. Other people won’t find the same things. I certainly don’t want to tell them [groaning] how much it’s going to cost and where to stay – all that muck.”