It started with the atlas. She’d get it out in the afternoon and show me Scotland, Italy, Ireland, Canada, explain how we’d travelled across all that blue, landing in green, traversing dotted lines and thin lines, crossing the hard borders. My Grandma always wanted to be a geography teacher, but it was the 40s and she was the head of the household so she worked on the desk at the Post Office in Mary Hill, and passed her love of maps and geography down to her daughter and her daughter.
Grandma’s atlas became one of the sacred objects of my childhood, and when she died it was given to me. I still feel like I’m holding it for her, like a librarian. I’m the custodian of her book of stories and imagination, of all the possibility of our blue green world. I am still captivated by maps.
There is a brass etching of Hayling Island in my parents’ house that’s been with them as long as I can remember, and when I realised I wanted to write a collection of stories set on Hayling, I went to that map; another childhood shrine, with its swirly postcard writing and little boats just off the shore. I then started looking for more, searching online, and then in the map collection in Hayling library: hand-drawn maps from the 1800’s, the island at war, nautical navigation charts, agricultural, and then the geological, the bedrock.
I decided these Hayling stories will sit online within a map of the island. A map of maps, perhaps. We’re still experimenting. My collaborator on the digital design element of this project is also a devoted map-head. Maya Chowdhry is perhaps best known for her writing, but she is also a self-confessed geek of the very best kind. We started talking about what a digital map of stories might look like, and what it might be drawn from, and Maya quickly dug into archives, finding old surveyors drawings of the island, satellite imagery, and then weather maps, live feeds of the barometric pressure changes and webcams that record the roll of the tide. Meanwhile, I was painting a large map of Hayling on glass and paper, messing with the borders and colours, marking some of the things that are no longer there and some that never were.
We’ve started blending the imaginative and the measured, and Maya’s omnivorous approach to mapping has made me think much more broadly about what a map is, what it does, and why we make them.
We map what we want to fix, and if the thing we want to fix is defiant, we look for ways to either accommodate that, or deny it.
One of the important themes already emerging in this project is that of climate change, and the sea level rise that threatens low lying places like Hayling. Early on, Maya and I talked about how we might show this in the mapping, and via her deep interest in data and live feeds, we decided that it needs to follow the tide. There are parts of Hayling that, despite only being physically accessible for a few hours a day when the tide is out, are firm parts of the island’s psyche. They must be mapped, and they also must change, so we decided that the website will link to local tidal reports so that anything below the tide line at any given time will not be accessible to the reader or listener. If a story sits out on the tip of the East Winner Sand Bar, our audience can only read or hear it when the tide is out. They will be tied to the island.
When I go back to my Grandma’s atlas now, I breathe in its unique smell – glue, paper, memory. I love it. But I also love how the immediacy of digital mapping can bring us closer to a place in real time, collapsing distance and disrupting those fixed dotted lines, the green and the blue – making it move and shift and live.
We are holding our last work-in-progress live event this Thursday at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, so please join us for more on maps, stories, and the flexible borders between.
This is the third and final instalment in a series of blog posts exploring the creation of a collection of audio digital short stories – Hayling Island: stories at sea level. Michelle Green is a short story writer collaborating with Maya Chowdhry on digital design, Caro C on sound design, and Dr David Cooper on non-fiction and literary mapping. The project is funded by Arts Council England and New Writing North, in collaboration with Comma Press. More info at http://www.michellegreen.co.uk/press
Michelle’s short story collection Jebel Marra is available in e-book and paperback from the Comma Press website.