On my seventh birthday my parents gave me a globe.
My own spherical world of colourful landmasses and oceans, strung together with lines and stitched down with words, sat on a shelf by my bed.
At first I thought it was broken for it tilted to one side. My dad convinced me that many things in the world aren’t perfect, but they make it work.
The land masses had soothing colours that blended in to each other – pale yellows for the deserts, deep luxurious greens of the forests, mottled browns for highlands like Tibet and Ethiopia, and light greens for wide expansive plains like the prairies of the USA and the steppes of the USSR. Then there were the tiny blue threads that meandered their way down to the sea, with tantalising names like Zambezi, Congo, Mississippi, Irrawaday and the Danube. But what struck me the most was how blue the world was, flooded with salty sea water, and how strange then that a planet of water was called earth.
Buzzing with curiosity on global questions
That 12 inch sphere lit up in me an intense fascination for distant lands, mysterious and inviting, filled with new languages and peoples, landscapes of deserts, jungles, lakes and mountains, beckoning for adventures. Places like Timbuktu and Lake Titicaca, Borneo; Japan; Tanzania, Panama, Cameroon and Zanzibar.
After school, I’d work my way up rivers from the ocean, the Amazon one evening perhaps, to follow a tributary up the Andes. Or along the sharp high ridges of the length of the Himalayas from the Hindu Kush to Arunachal Pradesh.
The world was big. It was so big in fact that a huge city like my home town of London, didn’t even feature as the size of a daddy long leg’s eye. A buzzing curiosity filled my head – my questions made my poor dad go crazy…
- How did the letters stay afloat on the oceans? A-T-L-A-N-T-I-C, P-A-C-I-F-I-C, I-N-D-I-A-N. Were these huge capitals, letters each 300 miles long, bobbing along on the waves? Or were they held to the sea bed with anchors to stop them drifting apart?
- If the world was hollow like my globe, couldn’t we all just live inside it, like the Clangers or the Wombles, and slide along its smooth cool interior to get from place to place?
- Why didn’t people who lived in New Zealand just fall off?
- Why was most of the land in the northern hemisphere? Wouldn’t gravity cause the land masses to drift to the bottom like my sister’s lava lamp?
- Who decided that the north pole should be at the top? Down near Antarctica, the colours were fresher without finger marks, and I preferred the world that way up where the South Pacific took on a better view, filled with islands so small they were dwarfed by their names like Pitcairn, Gambier, Tatkoto and Tokelau and became floating rafts of words.
- Didn’t the continents look like a jigsaw puzzle breaking apart? Africa surely fitted snuggly in to the eastern-most tip of Brazil? And the Horn of Africa looked like a perfect dovetail with the Arabian Peninsula. And why couldn’t the continents move along a bit, for there was so much room in the Pacific?
- Were some countries designed? The boot of Italy; the rabbit and lioness faces of Australia; the stepping stones of the Aleutian Islands.
- Where was Xanadu, Shangrilah, Camelot or Moomin Valley? Narnia was missing, as were the Mysterious Cities of Gold and Castle Grayskull.
The globe never lied
The world was enigmatic, sometimes confusing and at times enlightening but, unlike the map on the wall, it told the truth. The map showed Europe in the centre of the world; on the globe any country with a tilt and a turn could be in the centre; the map showed Greenland nearly as big as Africa (from Libya to Botswana to be precise) – the globe showed that about 50 Greenlands could fit in Africa. The map showed the shortest route from London to Tokyo was across the USSR – the globe showed this was false and the quickest way was over the North Pole.
When I asked my dad why the map had got it so wrong, he peeled a tangerine, held up the single peel and asked, ‘Can you make this in to a rectangle?’ I shook my head, it was impossible.
‘There wouldn’t be enough peel, you would have to stretch some pieces. So, some places, like Greenland, got stretched.’
Night-time forays in to the political world:
From a silver disc that covered nearly half of the Antarctic, a black electrical lead as thick as Italy led to a switch as big as Mexico. At the flick of this switch the natural features of the world were consumed by a patchwork world of countries in bright yellows, dark greens, pinks and browns.
At night, under a blanket (lest my parents would find out), I would sometimes pore over those countries, study their names, shapes and sizes. There were gridlines like in my maths book, and dotted lines called Tropics, a tilted equator like the seam on a cricket ball, a sprinkling of numbers, that all had the effect of bringing unnecessary complexity from a grown-up world. To top it all, the International Date Line stated, “Gain a Day” and “Lose a Day” pointing in opposite directions like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.
By the time I got to sleep, the colours of the countries stayed alive in the insides of my eyelids but the political world paled in to drabness in comparison – countries were no match for mountains and forests, red borderlines no match for coasts and rivers; they glossed over what was interesting in the world, blotting out snowy peaks and icy tundra; they fragmented the world with a zig-zag of lines, synthetic garish hues and contrived shapes far removed from the pretty blue-green pearl that offered something communal, a place to be shared.
The North Pole starts to melt
By the time I was 8 I had neglected my world. A layer of dust had settled on the countries and seas, especially in the northern hemisphere. Parts of the land were worn away by finger prints in to shallow white quarries. One evening the globe slipped from my hands and fell on the floor.
A thousand miles off the west coast of South America, in the South Pacific, a huge crack appeared swallowing millions of gallons of sea water, shrimps, whales, krill and fish in a gap of white light. Over the next few weeks this fissure crept in to the northern hemisphere till it hit Southern California; forest fires started; cities were evacuated; highways became jammed. The sea level decreased and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge spanned a desert of barnacles, dried seaweed and dead fish. At night, the clouds in the sky were lit up from brilliant rays deep in the earth’s centre.
The catastrophe worsened – the equator started to split and a chasm opened in South America, across Ecuador and Colombia high in the Andes. Tributaries of the Amazon flowed down in to this gaping brilliant light, which created rainbows in the river spray, swallowed fishes and dolphins, woke up sloths and bleached the leaves of the rainforest canopy.
Despite these cataclysms, I continued to keep my world lit up on my shelf and my globe warmed – but what happens on one side of the world, can affect another part thousands of miles away in the same way that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tornado.
And so it was in my world. With the cracking of the equator the northern hemisphere jolted. The north pole moved a little, just by a few hundred miles, nothing too noticeable. But in a fragile world, that is all it takes. The hot lamp inside the globe started to touch the surface of the great northern ice cap. Northern Siberia, the northern coasts of Sweden and Norway started to melt. Bright white light lit up a wisp of smoke. Fire melted ice. Land fell away. The smell of burning plastic filled my bedroom. The land warped, till it undulated precariously and northern parts of Canada, Baffin Island, the Elizabeth islands and the Ellesmere Island, became wastes of charred brown earth. I ignored it all and went fishing for newts in the River Wandle.
The north and south drift apart
By the time I was ten years old, the global affair had worsened. The world was splitting in half at the equator; whole safari parks, the Serengeti, the Masai Mara, had fallen through the gap. Animals that survived the collapse ran for their lives. Lake Victoria split in half and became a celestial waterfall of vertical light, and large flocks of flamingos flew away like rising pink clouds. The Nile started to flow the wrong way from the Mediterranean to Lake Victoria. Sumatra and Borneo became divided, ancient dormant volcanoes became angered and smouldered once again and orang-utans stared in shock, from tree tops with mouths ajar. Parts of the Indian Ocean, just south of the Maldives, just flaked away swallowing with them cargo ships and oil tankers in to a hole of light beams.
The global north and the global south edged further apart; with no land mass or ocean to bridge them together the world became divided. I ignored it all and put my globe back on the shelf and went out to play football.
Years passed. I became a teenager. Like Jackie Paper’s Puff, my globe made way for other toys. A Walkman. A Game and Watch. A Commodore 64. My globe gathered dust for I’d use it sparingly to locate places that would feature in the news. The Falkland Islands. Beirut. Tehran. Ethiopia, Chernobyl, Bhopal.
The patchwork blanket of countries, like stained glass, changed; nations like the USSR and Yugoslavia disappeared; new ones emerged, like the Stans; some changed names like Kampuchea and Myanmar; Germany unified; Hong Kong became Chinese. The natural world changed too – the deserts increased and the ice caps got smaller. My globe, flaking and faded in places, became out of date.
Last week I found that globe again in the attic at the top of my mum’s house. It’s of no use now, just a bit of out of date junk, full of dust and sentimentality, beyond repair, but not beyond being loved. How could I throw it away now, after all those night-time adventures, all those lessons about how day and night worked, how the seasons happened, why ships disappeared across the horizon and what an immense place our world is. The world is a simpler place when you’re seven and perhaps the greatest lesson that little object gave me, and one I wish I had heeded before it was too late, is how fragile, brittle and delicate a thing the world is.