Something I’ve been meaning to put here for some time now. This is my column on the short story that is the point of origin for Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight. The column first appeared in Vector 238, Spring 2016.
My great-grandfather, on the other hand, wrote of all possible landscapes underlying each other like the pages of a book, requiring only the production of a map of each landscape to make it real. (157)
There can be, I think, little doubt that Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight was one of the best genre titles of 2015. It provides an innovative and satisfying sequel to Europe in Autumn, but the origins of the novel go back a decade or more to a little-known but equally satisfying story that has, so far as I know, appeared only in Hutchinson’s 2004 collection As the Crow Flies. But that story is well worth considering in its own right, and not just because it provided the intellectual groundwork for an excellent novel.
The majority of stories have someone narrating the tale, whether it is a first-person actor caught up in the events related, or a god-like observer looking down imperiously upon the doings of a set of puny characters. A narrative of this sort implies observation, someone is relating a tale in such a way that we, the readers, are put in the place of a spectator. But varieties of non-fiction, from catalogues to academic texts, from advertising brochures to religious commentaries, provide other ways of relating a story, imply a different sort of narrator. Where a narrator traditionally suggests the immediacy of a spectator watching events unfold (whether in present tense, where events march in lock-step with the narration, or in past tense, where they are recalled at leisure); other forms suggest distance from the events, so they are less immediate and perhaps less clear. Where the familiar narrator offers the possibility of unreliability, these more distanced forms allow for gaps in the evidence or multiple interpretations.
There are, inevitably, strengths and weaknesses in both forms, though these may come down to the strengths and weaknesses of the individual author. But what is interesting is that they put the reader in a different relationship with what is being told.
“On the Windsor Branch” is a classic example of a non-narrative story form, though what form has been adopted for the tale is not altogether clear. Ignoring the title, whose form fits more readily with traditional storytelling than it does with any of the possible models for this particular story (the title is by far my least favourite part of what is otherwise an intriguing and well-realised work of fiction), the opening paragraph suggests, perhaps, an extract from the catalogue for an auction, or possibly an exhibition catalogue:
“Of particular interest to cartographical students, Sheet 2000 – the so-called ‘Millennial Sheet’ – is the only surviving sheet produced by the ‘Alternative Survey’ begun by General H. Whitton-Whyte in 1770.” (149)
The tone is brisk, no-nonsense, matter-of-fact, exactly the voice one would expect to encounter in such a catalogue. There is nothing personal in this, we are not sharing an experience. Everything is precise – Sheet 2000, begun in 1770 – and yet everything is mysterious – what was the Alternative Survey? why is this the only surviving sheet? The phrasing implies that the story of the Alternative Survey and the Millennial Sheet is well known, particularly to cartographical students; but they are not known to us, so the unusual voice that Hutchinson has adopted for this story immediately places us in media res, aware that there is something strange and different but not exactly clear what it might be.
After this opening paragraph, the tone changes slightly. There is a voice now, but not that of someone engaged in the events related. It is an academic voice, the tone is that of someone who has researched this material and is laying down, as briefly and as clearly as possible, the results of that research. It is a dispassionate voice: this, in outline, is what we know; whether we believe any of it, how we might choose to interpret the material, how we might fill in those gaps that the record does not provide, all of this is beside the point. This is not a story, it is a recitation of incongruous facts, take it or leave it.
And just as the voice withholds engagement, so the approach withholds story: what it is that makes the Millennial Sheet strange, what piques our interest is not even hinted at until nearly half way through what is, after all, a very short fiction.
So, as we move into the body of the fiction, we encounter a sequence of bland subheads, each accompanied by a paragraph or so of explanatory text, just the sort of thing we would expect from a minor academic who has spent a few hours in the library but has no great commitment to the enterprise. We are told about “THE ALTERNATIVE SURVEY”, “SURVEY”, “DRAWING AND ENGRAVING” and “PUBLICATION HISTORY”; just the sort of dull, technical information we might expect to encounter accompanying a map of some mild historic interest.
Though this mild interest quickly proves to be of a curious sort. The very first thing we are told is what is not known: “Quite why General Whitton-Whyte undertook his own survey of the British Isles, when the same work was being carried out by the Ordnance Survey, is not known” (149). But then, this is appropriate, most of what follows is an account of what is not known. The early history of the family is “shrouded in mystery” (149); no one understands his eccentric system for numbering the sheets of his survey, “Some of these numbers ran to many digits (forty-seven in the case of the Birmingham sheet)” (149); and all we really know about the process of his survey is that “Apocryphal stories abound” (150). In fact, how much surveying was done would appear to be a matter of conjecture: Whitton-Whyte is reported to have remeasured “the Hounslow Heath baseline measured by General William Roy in 1784” (151), but it is not known whether he undertook any other measurements. Indeed, there are reports of his survey teams copying or even stealing the data being compiled by the Ordnance Survey at the same time.
So far, this would seem to be the story of an elaborate cartographical fraud. And not a particularly successful one, since only one full set of the Survey was ever collected, and that was destroyed in a house fire in 1912, except for Sheet 2000, which was on loan to the British Museum at the time.
We begin to suspect that something more is going on here only when we learn about Whitton-Whyte’s disputes with Henry Hoskyns, who “undertook the reduction of the field drawings to a form ready for engraving” and was heard to exclaim that “the detail of the drawings was ‘as inaccurate as it is possible to be’” (151). (The sense of casual mastery of technical detail implied by that job description is one of the incidental joys of this story.) The question of accuracy is clearly of importance: Whitton-Whyte dismisses Hoskyns and reinstitutes all of the details from his original drawings, and on delivering it to the engraver charges him to “change not one line nor one triangulation point” (152). But we are still some way from learning the actual significance of these changes, or their substance.
Only in the section headed “PUBLICATION HISTORY” does a vague sense of mystery resolve into anything approaching story, and it does so slowly and quietly so that at first it is not altogether clear what is actually going on. In a series of numbered passages, the various iterations of Sheet 2000 are catalogued as they are amended and revised by different generations of the Whitton-Whyte family. Again the confident use of technical language serves as a distraction, so that we notice the authority rather than the oddity. So Sheet 2000 is first issued in 1822, less than a month after the death of General Whitton-Whyte; the first revision, of 1833, brings it “into line with the James Gardner printings of OS Sheet 7 between 1824 and 1840” (153); the 1849 revision is the first electrotype printing; the 1863 “Black Sheet” “became the only map in British history to be banned by order of Parliament” (155); and only two examples of the final 1890 Natal Sheet were ever printed, “of which this is the single survivor” (155), a comment which again suggests that this might belong in an auction or exhibition catalogue.
But our sense of what causes this notoriety develops only slowly. The Millennial Sheet covers that area west of London that includes Windsor, Slough and, more recently, Heathrow. In Whitton-Whyte’s original 1822 map, the one that caused his split with Henry Hoskyns, the details seem to conform largely with those of the contemporary Ordnance Survey map, except for one “inexplicable error” (152): a village called Stanhurst is shown just north of Colnbrook. “No such village appears on the OS sheet, and indeed no such village has ever existed in this location” (152).
While the author of this account continually laments the fact that subsequent revisions of the map only compound this error, we watch a new landscape come into being. By 1833, Stanhurst has been joined by the hamlet of Adam Vale. By 1849,Colnbrook has disappeared from the map, while Adam Vale has grown into a substantial town and Stanhurst has acquired a cathedral. By this point, the map is in the charge of the third member of the Whitton-Whyte family, Charles, “a reclusive man … presiding over a family fortune mortally damaged by the cartographical endeavours of his father and grandfather” (154) who lived in Datchett and “spent many hours walking in a countryside which, according to his map, did not exist” (154).
Cartographically, we are assured that Whitton-Whyte’s attention is exclusively on this small corner of Middlesex, where “the spurious villages of Vale, Minton and Holding have obliterated Harmondsworth” while West Drayton has been replaced by “the legend ‘Drew Marsh’ and the symbol for a large pond” (154). As for the rest of the map, this seems to have been reproduced from earlier sheets or simply copied from the Ordnance Survey. By the time of the Black Sheet of 1863, the one banned by Parliament, Windsor, Staines, Uxbridge and Brentford have all disappeared (along, presumably, with Queen Victoria’s residence at Windsor Castle, which is probably though not explicitly why the map was banned), to be replaced with a new county, Ernshire, “complete and entire with towns, villages, hamlets, roads, streams and a rail link to Paddington” (155).
The final Natal Sheet (so named because it was published on the day that Charles’s son, Edwin, was born), simply consolidates this new county. It is worth noting that the physical features of the landscape, the hills and rivers, remain unchanged, it is only the political and social organisation imposed upon the landscape that has been altered. The appearance of this final map is accompanied by “a curious wave of hoaxes” (155), though we might like to ponder whether this isn’t a case of fiction affecting reality. Letters from addresses in Ernshire are delivered to newspapers, the Queen receives an invitation to review the garrison at Eveshalt, and “South Western Railway produced posters advertising day-trips to the ‘historic’ town of Stanhurst” (156). (Some of these make a further appearance in Europe at Midnight.) In response, an Act of Parliament forbids “any member of the Whitton-Whyte family from ever publishing another map” (156), and shortly after that Charles Whitton-Whyte walks away from his home and baby son and is never seen again.
But that isn’t quite the end of the story. It transpires that Edwin Whitton-Whyte, who changes his name to separate himself from the family obsession, records in his journal receiving a letter from someone purporting to be his father, assuring him that “the eight-seventeen from Paddington sometimes calls at Stanhurst, and … ‘confidantes’ among the staff of the Windsor Branch of the South Western Railway … will ensure my safe passage to a county which does not exist” (157-8). He records instructing his solicitors to trace and prosecute the perpetrators of this madness, but is then killed at the Somme. And the letters referred to in his journal were destroyed when the offices of his solicitors were burned down “shortly after the deaths of all three senior partners in the Staines Train Disaster” (158). We recall the fire at the London home of the Whitton-Whytes that destroyed all but one sheet of the Alternative Survey, and are struck by the amount of convenient death and destruction that seems to have accompanied this cartographic anomaly. Staines, of course, lies within what should be Ernshire. But the author doesn’t notice this; in the rather dull recitation of events there is no space for coincidence or conspiracy. Thus, in a final anecdote, there is a story that, in old age, Charles Whitton-Whyte’s sister in law was visited by a young man claiming to be a nephew, who left with her a railway timetable and a map marked “Whitton-Whyte and Sons. Mapmakers. Stanhurst” (159), though no trace of either was found after her death. This is absence of evidence, but is it evidence of absence? One of the joys of the form that Hutchinson has chosen for this fiction is that it allows us to recognise the real story in what we read, but which the author does not recognise in what is written.
For the author, therefore, Sheet 2000 “may be the last remaining example of a peculiarly English sensibility, the same sensibility which induced landowners to build ‘follies’ on their estates” (158). But we recognise that there is more truth than is realised in the conclusion that the Millennial Sheet “recalls a time when maps did exercise a power over the landscape” (159). “On the Windsor Branch” would not have worked so well had Hutchinson chosen a more conventional form in which to tell it; it is a story whose revelations require quiet and distance rather than vigour and engagement to work their insistent magic. And it is a form which allows gaps in the narrative. Some are gaps in which the reader is encouraged to discern the true story; some are gaps that reveal the unanswered mystery still at the heart of the story: did Whitton-Whyte’s mapmaking conjure Ernshire into existence, or was it always there just waiting for a mapmaker to discover it?
Quotations taken from “On the Windsor Branch” by Dave Hutchinson in As The Crow Flies, Wigan, BeWrite Books, 2004, pages 149-159.