Double dutch: the many meanings of ‘Holland’

The title of the keenly awaited volume of memoirs by John Martin Robinson sounds like a crossword clue: Holland Blind Twilight. Would that be a Dutch kind of unseeing twilight or a drinking-session blind at twilight when Hollands gin is consumed? Of course not! It’s plain enough. Blinds are often made of Holland, a linen fabric. When unbleached it’s brown Holland. Holland came from Dutch Holland in the 15th century. Holland is also one of the Parts of Lincolnshire, the other two being Lindsey and Kesteven. The Parts of Lindsey are divided into Ridings (West, North and South, unlike Yorkshire). A riding is a third, from trithing a Norse affair,

The map as a work of art

’Tis the season of complacency, when we sit in warmth and shiver vicariously with Mary and Joseph out in the snowy wastes, A Christmas Carol or The Snowman. A handsome exploration of Antarctica seems equally appropriate festive fare. Peter Fretwell brings us chillingly close to a continent that has always inspired awe, evidenced by christenings such as Mount Erebus and Fenriskjeften — the Wolf’s Jaw mountains, named after Fenris, the Norse equivalent of the Beast, which will arise at the end of time to eat the world. The coldest, driest, remotest and windiest place on the planet, surrounded by the roughest ocean, has always seemed like somewhere primordial deities might

Surrounded by sea and sky: the irresistible draw of islands

Holiday islands, desert islands, love islands, islands of eternal youth, siren islands, islands filled with screaming demons. Of all the earth’s topographic features, islands are the most elastic, the most adept at accommodating the wilder projections of our imagination. Why it should be so is a question that has exercised writers from D.H. Lawrence to Oscar Wilde, Annie Dillard to Adam Nicolson. The cultural geographer John Gillis identifies it as a curiously western trait, an extension of the metaphysical thirst for definition, the need to cut everything up into discrete entities in order to understand it. Island Dreams is Gavin Francis’s own contribution to the debate, based on his decades-long

Our rivers, as much as our oceans, are in urgent need of protection

Geography can be history and history geography — and sometimes the most obvious things are overlooked. Laurence C. Smith’s Rivers of Power endeavours to make us see beneath the surfaces of arterial waters and consider them as carriers of civilisation and arbiters of destinies. Rivers are elemental and ambivalent. They are frontiers and highways, destroyers and fertilisers, fishing grounds and spiritual metaphors, power-givers and flushers of poisons. They are the veins of terrains, which like our own veins carry oxygen or pathogens, and extinction when they fail. They inspired Babylonian and Roman legal codes, outlining ideas about access, drainage, fishing, irrigation, maintenance, navigation, pollution and sharing that still course through

The tug of the tide

We ought to cherish the haunted landscape of the Thames Estuary while we can. The grey hulks of old power stations, the white domes of oil refineries, the sternly rectilinear factories, all of which once seemed oppressive, are now instead poetic because of their near extinction. Caroline Crampton’s atmospheric and movingly written exploration of the Thames, and that once-industrial estuary, is especially illuminating on the soul of the river; and she investigates satisfyingly what it is in these silent marshes and concrete embanked paths that still generates such an odd sense of unease. Her relation to the river and the sea beyond is especially strong: her parents built their own

One of mankind’s great mysteries

Later this month, a boat builder from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia will fly to the Russian city of Sochi to begin work on a 40-foot craft made from papyrus reeds. A German-led expedition hopes Fermín Limachi’s construction skills will see them safely across the Black Sea and eventually on to Athens. It is a mad idea, but not an entirely novel one. Nearly 50 years ago, Limachi’s father was persuaded by the Norwegian explorer and ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl to embark on something very similar. But the route back then was from Morocco to South America, a journey of some 6,100km. Heyerdahl is one of the dozens of fascinating — and

Ninety degrees north

Having spent too much of my life at both poles (writing, not sledge-pulling), I know the spells those places cast. Michael Bravo promises to reveal something of that enigma, claiming at the outset of his book: ‘I will treat the mysterious power and allure of the North Pole in a way you will not have seen before.’ The volume is one of an interesting series on the cultural history of natural phenomena, that includes a title on Fire, and another on Swamp. Bravo structures his book around the struggle of navigators and philosophers to make sense of the strange powers of the North Pole, beginning with the ancients of Greece,

British street names

You know where you are with a British street name. I don’t mean literally. I mean there’s a tacit humility to our islands’ hodonyms: they are short, simple and unpretentious. Not for us the long-winded commemorations of national heroes or local worthies: no Avenue du Révérend Père Corentin Cloarec or Burgemeester Baron van Voerst van Lyndenstraat. Our street names are soundest away from the city. The High Street is thriving: it’s the commonest name in England and Wales, while Main Street leads the field in Scotland. Great Britain has some 3,600 of the two. A ‘street’ used to refer to a properly paved road, a practice imported by the Romans

The week in books – Tudors, thinkers, dreamers and boozers

The book reviews in this week’s issue of the Spectator is worth the cover price. Here is a selection of quotes from some of them. The historian Anne Somerset enjoys Leanda de Lisle’s ‘different perspective’ on the Tudor dynasty. She reminds us that these self-invented parvenus had ‘vile and barbarous’ origins. ‘When Henry VII’s surviving son inherited the throne as Henry VIII, he continued his father’s policy of judicially murdering anyone close enough to the throne to imperil the claims of his immediate family. Yet the dynasty’s future remained precarious, for Henry’s six marriages produced only a single male heir. Having disinherited his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, Henry only reinstated

Restoration man

Given that he wrote and published some of the most stunningly handsome books of the 17th century, John Ogilby has not been served well by literary history. The Fables of Aesop (1651), the first complete English translation of Virgil (1654), a two-volume edition of the Authorised Version of the Bible (1660) plus vernacular versions of the Iliad (1660) and Odyssey (1665) were all magisterial folios, produced with the clearest of type, the widest of margins and on the heaviest of paper. Ogilby wrote specifically for those with deep pockets and fine libraries, an elite book-buying public who could afford translations illustrated with copious and expensive engravings. He would have been

Atlas shrugs

In his Forward Prize-winning collection of 2014, A Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, Kei Miller’s hero describes his craft thus: ‘My job is to imagine the widening/ of the unfamiliar and also/ the widening ache of it;/ to anticipate the ironic/ question: how did we find/ ourselves here.’ This bringing of the unfamiliar into scope looms large in three new collections of cartographic curiosities which tell us about places that never were, places we’ve never been and places we will never go to. Edward Brooke-Hitching’s beautifully illustrated The Phantom Atlas presents the stories of over 50 locations that unwarrantedly found their way on to maps. In many

London’s lost rivers

I found my first of London’s many lost rivers when I walked across Holborn Viaduct, looked down at the sweep of Farringdon Road below and realised that it had to be the path of a river, not just a road. Indeed, I was soon to learn that the river Fleet runs directly beneath, coursing down to meet the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge. The Fleet is perhaps the most famous of London’s lost rivers; it was once large enough for boats to navigate it, and an anchor has been discovered as far up as Kentish Town. As for the lower stretch of the Fleet, its earliest recorded cargo were the stones

Alone on a wide, wide sea

Some years ago, when I stepped from an unstable boat onto Juan Fernández island, a friendly man took my bag and introduced himself as Robinson. Ten minutes later, I found a room to rent. The homeowner’s first name was Crusoe. Get the idea? Although Defoe set his story hundreds of miles away, near the mouth of the Orinoco, Juan Fernández was where the real Crusoe, the Scottish sailing master Alexander Selkirk, spent four years and four months in the company only of goats. Andrew Lambert has had the very good idea of writing a kind of historical biography of the 15×5-mile lump of volcanic rock 415 miles off the coast

Humboldt’s gift

The Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt was once the most famous man in Europe bar Napoleon. And if you judge a man by his friends (as you should), how about Goethe, Schiller, Simon Bolivar, Cuvier, Lamarck, Laplace, Guy-Lussac and Jefferson? And that is only the start of the supper list. So what happened? Why is he forgotten? For the best of reasons: because he contributed so much to so many fields of intellectual interest that are now separate scientific disciplines. And also because most of his ideas that were once startlingly original are now commonplace. We take it for granted that there are vast rivers running through the seas (but

Bad news from paradise

Suddenly, the Maldivians are in the news. Earlier this year, they locked up their first democratically elected president, and just recently they declared a state of emergency. It never used to be like this. The Maldives was just a place you saw in brochures, looking expensively turquoise. It has a population no bigger than Barnet (350,000), and 99 per cent of the country is covered in water. Until recently, even its neighbour, Sri Lanka, hardly seemed to notice it. During my time in Colombo, visiting Maldivians were merely a source of idle curiosity. They flew into town either to pick up a secular education or to get roaring drunk. It

What are 16-year-olds supposed to learn by making posters?

My niece, Lara, 15, has a mind like a surgical blade. On any subject, from calculus to The X Factor, she finds the heart of the issue and dissects it with alarming ease. Lara makes mincemeat of homework, trailing A grades, which is why it was so odd to find her stumped two weeks ago. The trouble was with her English language GCSE. As part of her coursework (controlled assessment) she had to comment on a pamphlet, produced by a charity, about volunteering. On the cover of the pamphlet was a slogan in a pink circle, and Lara’s dilemma was this. She said: I’ll get points if I write that

Escape from Omnishambleshire: the case for the old county boundaries

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”James Forsyth, Matthew Engel and Tom Holland discuss counties” startat=785] Listen [/audioplayer]Just over 35 years ago, in August 1979, Christopher Booker wrote a cri de coeur in The Spectator calling for the return of England’s ancient counties and the repeal of the 1972 Local Government Act, under which most of them had been either merged, mauled, mangled or murdered. It drew a large and almost wholly supportive response from figures as distinguished as Professor Richard Cobb (‘Booker has rendered us all a ray of hope’) and Michael Wharton, a.k.a. the Telegraph columnist Peter Simple: ‘What strange beings, in what strange offices, on what strange drawing-boards, worked out these

A Labour MP defends the Empire – and only quotes Lenin twice

In a grand history of the British empire — because that is what this book really is —  you might expect more hand-wringing from a historian and Labour MP who has previously written a life of Engels. But despite quoting Marx half a dozen times (and Lenin, twice!) there is something about the idea of empire that excites Tristram Hunt. And this is a book about ideas, for all that it is rich in architectural description, economic fact and colourful anecdote. It describes how — and indeed when and where — the imperial ideology shaped and reshaped itself. As such, it is a nuanced riposte to those historians of empire,

Staycation reading

When it comes to choosing good books to read on holiday, I am a great believer in selecting reading matter to match the destination. What better to read in Sicily than Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for instance? And how wonderful to read Laurie Lee’s beautiful As I Walked Out one Midsummer Morning while in Spain. This school of thought can be taken to extremes — I even have a friend who chooses her holidays based entirely on what she wants to read. The only downside to this approach is that when summer stretches ahead of you with no sunny holiday on the horizon, then you feel not only

The Natures of Maps

Is this map of birds’ migratory routes informative or deceptive? Does it create the impression that nature is flourishing when it is really in decay? In today’s golden age of cartography, when technology has lifted mapmaking to an unprecedented level of sophistication, The Natures of Maps wants to be a party-pooper. Maps, it declares, pretend to be objective when their information is really political and selective. It seems a rather obvious message. The prejudices of mapmakers have been apparent at least since the 14th century when the monkish creators of the Mappa Mundi placed Jerusalem at the centre of the world. This book is, however, aimed at geography students, and