The future of reading in our schools and the Lanchester consensus

Leo Robson asks why all the fuss about Capital and Michael Rosen says children's authors actually kn

The Critic at Large in the next issue of the New Statesman, out tomorrow is broadcaster, poet and children's author Michael Rosen. Rosen asks why children's novelists are so seldom consulted by politicians on the best way of encouraging young people to read. Rosen canvasses five possible explanations:

Your rough guide to likely reasons goes like this: 1) The author of a brand-new children's book about some characters called Wifflies is a celebrity once seen in a jungle, on ice or in Buckingham Palace. 2) The author sold a billion books last week. 3) The author's writing has been described by a bishop, Tory MP or private-school head teacher as obscene, left-wing, miserable, atheistic, horrific, violent, gay or feminist. 4) A publishing company has republished an old family favourite but edited out nice old family-favourite expressions such as "nigger". 5) The author is dead, English and classic but (it has just been discovered) had a very, very small penis, was hated by his grandchildren, had an affair with Trotsky and told lies about his incarcerated younger sister "Giddyboots".

Perhaps the main reason for authors not being asked for a second opinion, says Rosen, is the longstanding official interference with their to intellectually and aesthetically engage their intended audience in schools

Authors and illustrators for children are part of a long history of trying to engage children's interest in anything from factual, ideological, figurative and graphic traditions ... What infuriates me - and virtually every other writer for children I meet - is that the past 30 years has seen successive governments waging war on the democratic sharing of [their] wisdom.

Also in tomorrow's NS, our lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson discusses John Lanchester's Capital, a sprawling novel of London life. Robson departs significantly from the early praise heaped on the book (Lanchester's former London Review of Books colleague Andrew O'Hagan described it as "amazingly good; I doubt there will be a better novel this year. The well-written English novel of society - of the here and now - is such a rare beast, and especially rare is the one that also captures with style the inner lives of its characters"). Robson, for his part, acknowledges Lanchester's grasp of London's sociology and demography, but wonders if all that knowledge amounts to a satisfying novel:

Lanchester is fluent in the relevant codes at every level of society and on every rung of the property ladder, but vignettes don't add up to a vision. What's missing is a central device - a scam or legal case. There is a subject of sorts - a harassment campaign aimed at the inhabitants of Pepys Road [the south London street in which the novel is set]- but it has no propulsive force.

Capital has been praised for its social critique, but Robson wonders if Lanchester hasn't sacrificed depth for breadth:

A portrait of metropolitan decadence, the novel is all surfaces and stereotypes, all symptoms. The damning truth we yearn to hear has yet to be delivered.

Also in the 5 March issue of the New Statesman: Jane Shilling and Jonathan Derbyshire on Rachel Cusk; Norman Lamont on Trita Parsi's book about Obama's Iran policy; Kate Mossman on Madonna; and Will Self's Real Meals.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge