State of the World

I was in the Little Bookshop in Oxford’s Covered Market earlier today, looking for the usual left-wing books that I tend to buy when I think I have spare cash, and I found a secondhand copy of the The State of the World Atlas, first edition, 1981, on sale for £1.50, edited my Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal. I bought it without hesitation: a bargain.

After a gap of many years, I began thinking about this book again after reading Franco Moretti’s marvellous Atlas of the European Novel last year, another book which uses imaginative maps in a creative way to make very serious points. Then I found myself wondering just how implicated The State of the World Atlas and its successor volumes — including at least one edition of The War Atlas — are in the decade-plus-long process of my political opinions shifting ever leftwards, from 1988 or so to the present.

I think that I must have been given a copy of the book in 1982 or 1983, not too long after it was first published. It must have been before 1984, as that was when The New State of the World Atlas was released, and we had a copy of that, too, though not, I think, any of the successor volumes published in 1987, 1991 or 1995 (though I did have a copy of the 1985 State of the Nation Atlas, an altogether less interesting book in the same vein).

For when I started reading the Atlas, aged nine or so, I loved it. I was interested by the different ways in which the maps were drawn and coloured, in order to present different kinds of information on any number of subjects. At first I looked at the images; it was a couple of years at least before I began reading the small print in the endnotes at all carefully, and finding out what the sources of the information presented were, and it was many years later that I would have come to the conscious realisation that the people who put together this wonderful volume were very left-wing indeed, and that the Atlas was a first-rate piece of entirely admirable and (in my case) terribly effective propaganda.

The Atlas did many things. It taught me that the UNESCO-backed Peters projection of the face of the globe was a horrible distortion on page one. By the time we get to maps 7 to 12, I was being taught something about military conflict in the world, about the arms industry, and about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Map 24 displayed patterns of international indebtedness; map 37 introduced me to the idea of a tax haven; maps 53 and 54 to the extent of the pollution of the face of the earth. Flipping through the book’s pages tonight, I am reminded of just how much my opinions about the state of the world are stuck in a 1981 timewarp, because of the powerful impression this book made on me at the time.

It is at the end of the book that the political agenda becomes most apparent. Some of the maps seem dated: map 56 is of “The First Inflationary Crest”, and graphically displays the various national inflation rates of 1974. Others seem prescient: map 62 depicts “Russia’s Ununited Republics” and emphasises the strains of ethnic and national politics in what we can now – but not then – call the former Soviet Union. And the book closes with maps showing changing abortion laws, and patterns of 1960s student protest and 1970s urban insurrections. The significance of these meant absolutely nothing to me in 1982-3, nor for a time afterwards — but I know that I pored over these pages and that something from them entered into my soul.

In the last few years, there have been a few tenth anniversaries to get used to. People my age tend to think they are too young to have to have the feeling that something they remember happened a decade ago, but it crops up too often to be ignored. I can remember newspaper articles from 1988, the revolutions of 1989, the resignation of Mrs Thatcher in 1990, all as if they took place yesterday. The State of the World Atlas is now twenty years old for me, a rather alarming thought, but twenty years later it remains a wonderful, wonderful book, and it is delightful to remake its acquaintance again, after a gap of so many years.