As a guide, my nose is not to be trusted

A sense of direction is a wonderful thing: the instinct for following your nose that some people are endowed with.

My wife, for example, will say, as we meander in an unfamiliar town with signage designed solely for those who already know how to get where they are going, "I'm sure it's that way!" Usually she's right.

But if I follow my nose, the most likely outcome is that I will drive into a wall or over a cliff. My nose is not to be trusted.

On the other hand (and this is paradoxical), when she is driving and I am the passenger with the map, I never say, "Turn right, here" when I actually mean left. With the roles reversed, she has been known to do this.

"Right at the junction," she says firmly.

But I'm reading the sign, and it says the place we want is left.

"You really mean right?"

"Yes. Right! Right!" I turn right. Pause. "I meant 'left.' "

If there was one school subject I was most hopeless at, it was geography. I just couldn't squeeze a drop of fascination out of the question of whether there were coal fields in the northeast of England and potteries in the Midlands, or vice versa, or both. The names of oceans left me cold. Trade winds made me yawn. The delineation of continents was baffling. I had no discoverable interest in the equator, the Gulf Stream, the Cape of Good Hope, the length of the Zambezi River, the whereabouts (or spelling) of Albuquerque.

All this carefully fostered ignorance made me a strange driver when I first owned a car. I rather expected my car to know the way we were going. Very often, though, it let me down badly. I was reluctant to consult a map, possibly because of uncertainty about the points of the compass. Instead, when lost, I trusted I would soon find a recognizable landmark by continuing to drive. Surprisingly, this sometimes worked out well. Other times, not. Well, most times, not.

I have improved. On acquaintance, maps turn out to be clever and helpful. After careful thought, I can easily tell that east is to the right and west to the left, if one is heading north at the time.

I am still convinced that north is uphill, however, and that rivers must therefore, as they run downhill to the sea, travel north to south. The ones that appear to go from south to north presumably go uphill. Most times these days I get where I'm going. But I still occasionally jump in the car and head off without a thought in exactly the same direction as my previous journey. One time, as she likes to remind me, my wife let me go three miles the wrong way. "Just to see how long it would be before you noticed," she chuckled mischievously.

The Internet has opened up new possibilities for people to map routes or buy airline tickets. The results can be spectacular. One publicized case the other day was a young couple who booked tickets online to fly to Sydney. They assumed, when they boarded the plane, that they would end up near the famous Opera House and Harbor Bridge.

Instead, they arrived in a place without either called Sydney – in Nova Scotia.

And my brother-in-law worked out a route with the aid of the Internet. He was planning to drive his family from Scotland to a resort in northeast England. He thought it would be nice to stop at York on the way. York is an ancient and sizable city of beautiful aspect, a tourist magnet. But the route they followed led them ever farther west and into the county of Lancashire, which, because of a fracas a few centuries ago, is still jocularly "at war" with Yorkshire.

The capital of Lancashire is Lancaster. The Lancastrians and the Yorkists are like chalk and cheese.

At last, they came upon a signpost to York somewhere in the murky depths of Lancashire. The sign looked antique. Doubts growing, they followed it. It was the only sign to York they saw. And they're still unsure whether they saw York itself or not.

According to the index in my Gazetteer of Britain, there is a tiny village in Lancashire called York. But when I turn to the map in the same volume, it is not shown. I suspect it is almost invisibly small, this York. It's the kind of place depicted in an old cartoon where a driver of a sports car, conquering miles at lightning speed, says to his female passenger: "This is a pretty village, wasn't it?"

I have tried to replicate my brother-in-law's misleading Internet routemaking exercise. But if I punch in "York," only two places come up: The first is York, the big tourist town in Yorkshire. And the other is a place called ... New York.

New York? I wonder where that might be?

How educational fun was put on the map

A "dissected map" doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs, perhaps. But if you were a mid-18th century child in an aristocratic or middle-class family, you'd take your fun where you could find it. There was still a tendency to think of the child as some kind of inadequate adult, the sooner educated into serious maturity the better. Education was a heavy business.

But there was a growing recognition, as the century progressed, that making education more amusing might not be a bad idea. Dissected maps, so-called, were among the first evidences of this changing attitude.

The invention and its name were the work of an English cartographer and engraver, John Spilsbury, in the early 1760s. His idea was probably inspired by a slightly earlier "board game," as we would call them today, produced in London in 1759. This was a map of Europe across which was printed a track. The players raced along the track after throwing a die. Its originator, John Jeffreys, called it "A Journey Through Europe or The Play of Geography."

Spilsbury's dissected maps were the first to use printed maps glued to mahogany and cut into sections so that a child had to assemble them. In the process he or she would learn the shape and location of various countries. (The one above is dated 1766.)

Without knowing that his invention, which seems to have been immediately popular, was later to be called a "jigsaw puzzle," Spilsbury is still credited with being the first to make and market jigsaw puzzles.

A number of them survive, even if (in common with very many more recent jigsaws) they have pieces missing.

It was to be more than a century before die-stamping made possible the intricate interlocking pieces we now identify with jigsaw puzzles. Spilsbury and his successors in the dissected-map business used to cut out their pieces along the lines of country or county boundaries.

For 20 years after Spilsbury, all such puzzles were geography lessons. And then, as collector Linda Hannas has observed, "quite suddenly the scene changed and the spirit of levity broke in." After that, jigsaws could be of all sorts of pictures, even if many still carried moralistic and pedagogical overtones.

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