By: Lee Miller, author of Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony.
Andras did the maps for this book, which can be seen on his site: http://www.historyonmaps.com/
The difference is roughly similar to that between a music composer and a performer. A historical cartographer is the composer (combined with a director) who has a proper appreciation of historical events, their significance, context, time and location, and who puts these details that he deems relevant to a specific theme, issue, or need on a map. The historical cartographer decides what is to be featured and the way to feature it, and then provides the cartographer/performer with instructions. The cartographer completes the map on the basis of these instructions. (I am an historical cartographer who happens to unite both roles in himself:that of the historian who devises/compiles the map, and that of the cartographer).
What is your background? How did you get started in the mapmaking business?
For hard to fathom reasons I became strongly drawn to maps at the age of 8. It had a near ecstatic effect on me when I soon discovered that frontiers between states were different in the past. I recall, for instance, sitting on the shore of Lake Balaton (recommended to all, a very nice place) when I was 10, torturing a 23 year old history teacher who appeared then in my eyes to be one who, of course, possessed all relevant knowledge, by demanding whether Saudi Arabia used to be part of the Ottoman Empire or not?
Then a colleague in a bookshop where I was working, who was studying history at an evening course, made some critical remarks about a particular professor. Her comments made it clear to me that the professor in question had a higher than usual interest in historical geography. I sensed a soulmate. I just reached for the phone with much spontaneous naivety and asked to speak to him. I was switched on to him and began enthusing into the receiver. After some silence (the experience must have been highly unusual for him), he asked if I was able to see him at the university then and there. I was merely at work, so I did.The conversation ended by him stressing that my place was at the University, and at his suggestion that I put on paper some points I told him about concerning a Hungarian historical atlas. I did so. He forwarded it to the most academically prestigious historical magazine then in Hungary and they published it. That paved my way into the university. It DID matter that the magazine provided me with a written recommendation stressing that I was their contributor. After university and further publications in the field, it was relatively easy to find work as a free-lance historical map editor. It was a somewhat harder task years later, when I left Hungary for political reasons and settled in the UK, to translate my experiences into acceptance by British publishers. In time, however, I have slowly found my way into the system.
How, specifically, did you learn the technique of historical mapmaking and illustration–what’s involved?
To be able to do this, one needs to have some academic foundation, and also experience with maps, which need not be the result of formal training. Cartography is a very broad subject, and yet the main requirement in this case is an appreciation of how to translate thematic information into visual presentation. This is taught as part of the various courses that exist in cartography, but will never work well in practice without the cartographer being as at home with the subject as he is to mapping. What is desirable is to teach ways of mapping as part of history courses, and this to my knowledge is not yet satisfactorily done anywhere.Teaching historical geography is not unrelated, nor is it the same.
How did you begin your business and increase your clientele?
There I was, feeling lost. What was next? As it happened, I accidentally, thanks to former university contacts, secured a task involving the preparation of ethno-statistical maps, which was good for about a month’s worth of earnings. But after that, the future seemed to be frightening.
The sole offer that came in, thanks to the compassion of an ex-university mate who knew about my predicament, was to teach ‘scientific socialism’ in a secondary school (remember, we were in Russian occupied Communist Hungary). One should not brag, but I am convinced that it is eternally to my credit that I managed (I am still not sure how) not to murder the person who made that offer. There I was at home later, sitting, weighing my circumstances, and being truly depressed. Then history unexpectedly repeated itself. My thoughts ran like this. “What do I know? – Historical maps. i.e.: nothing. – Who needs Nothing?”And then in a flash:“Got it! The Hungarian Scientific Academy does!”
It may amount to a weakness, still I admit that it gave me much pleasure (that I managed not to show) in particular that on one occasion a publisher entrusted me with overhauling the accuracy of a series of maps prepared by the very company that I had been compelled to leave. I was sent there, and they had, not though without much reluctance, to replace ill-positioned frontier lines, etc., under my instructions. I failed to understand their (or any such) position. If something was factually incorrect, what was the need to personalize the issue and be annoyed with me, merely because I happened to be better informed about the case? Is it not giving accurate information to the reader that is of paramount or rather exclusive importance?
So all was well from a work point of view, but I was unhappy living in a Communist country, and so years later I asked for asylum in Britain.There, new types of difficulties were in store for me. Publishers, I now realize, must have looked with an element of wonder at my letters in which I offered my services as an historical cartographer. That was not their approach to historical mapping. One of them, Cambridge University Press, must have thought (it seems to me, with hindsight) that I was an idiosyncratic cartographer, and replied by hiring me to draw two maps of an historical and Spanish theme. Until that point, I never prepared artwork ready for printing, barring one early and technically amateurish approach while still at university. Yet, I thought, why not? I knew what to expect from a map, and I was able to find out quickly about the simple technicalities involved. An English family I knew thanks to hitchhiking (one of them gave me a lift in France on my way to Britain) lent me money, which enabled me to buy a pen and materials, and the rest was a matter of concentration. That made me a cartographer.
It is unusual, perhaps, in that I have not acquired formal training, but my background knowledge was already much higher than the average technician who attended college. It did help, though, that I soon got employed on a part-time basis by The Economist, where the chief cartographer, Richard Natkiel, who appreciated my general knowledge, did not mind teaching me useful technical tricks while I was working for them. All this, of course, is largely obsolete since one now prepares maps digitally. It took longer, though, to gain credit in my proper field, historical cartography. It was again the criticism that I was able to offer, that helped. I wrote to Martin Gilbert (official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill, Fellow of Merton College in Oxford, etc.) still from Hungary, about errors that I found in his atlases – which points he took extremely well. This did not lead directly to any major work, yet it may well be that his benevolent recommendation paved my way to some extent. (I also suspect that he had a hand in my receiving political asylum without difficulty.)
More significantly, perhaps, I offered a long list of noted errors to Times Books that I identified in the first edition of their by now classic Atlas of World History. Although their immediate payment for this substantially changed my financial situation, it took much longer – 14 years precisely (such is the speed of too many things in Britain) – until the contact bore fruit in terms of work. When it did, however, it did suddenly and in a major way.
Tell us about your most involved job?
The biggest published piece of work that I have done was the conception and compilation of the entire map content of the Times Atlas of European History, but I had also a very significant role in the creation of the Times Atlas of the 20th Century, and Dorling Kindersley’s Atlas of World History. Currently I am working on an atlas for Times Books (Harper Collins) that deals with British history. Two of its maps are displayed with this interview.
Do you have a region of the world, or any historical themes/creative interpretations you like best?
It is historical mapping as such that I am interested in. From this angle, the exact theatre of mapping is of a lesser importance to me. It may be true that my immediate knowledge is higher when in comes to Europe (of any period) and the 17th-20th centuries (any part of the World), but this does not mean that I like this area/period more than others. If the task involves another area or period other than those I am most at home with, it merely means that I spend a little more time with research to prepare a map than otherwise. It could be said that I am more interested in the behavior of states, frontier changes, territorial disputes, civilizations as units and of ethnic/minority issues throughout history than other subjects. I have a range of ideas that have the potential, if recognized by those who control publication, to change the whole field of historical atlas creation. The tradition (in Britain this is particularly strong) to regard historical atlases as works of reference only makes it difficult to open the eyes of publishers to the enormous potential that the genre also offers for communicating issues and points of view. I have many ideas that, I am convinced, can revolutionize the field. What are difficult to change are ingrained attitudes. Nor am I strong in the know-how of selling myself, thanks in part to my background.If, however, I met an open-minded publisher not totally averse to something significantly novel and highly topical, I have very much to offer that undoubtedly would bring at least as much financial benefit to the publisher as any historical atlas may. Most likely more. I am working, for instance, on an exciting set of maps dealing with Islam that I actually began before 9/11.The concepts behind the maps are completely unique, as referred to above, and I’m looking forward to finishing this project and finding an interested publisher.The issues concerning that part of the world are fascinatingly complex.
I understand that you own one of the largest private collections of historical atlases in the world. Tell us about it, how you began collecting (as a teenager – did your friends find this strange?), how you search the world for more atlases, specific editions, etc.
Corresponding to my interest, I became a regular visitor of Budapest secondhand bookshops from the age of 10, torturing my parents for money whenever I found something. I am lucky that, though not well established financially (few people were then in Communist Hungary), they were, on the whole, understanding. People around me tended to be supportive. They accepted my unusual interest and it was not too rare for me to be given free maps and also atlases that they had at home from, say, grandparents, but did not need.
Tell us how you use this vast collection for making your maps. Do you consult them and does this resource at your disposal often lend a complexity to your work that the people hiring you might not understand?
Existing historical atlases can be very useful to speed up the process of creating new ones, but their content should be evaluated critically. This is not, however, the way they are frequently used. There is a tendency simply to copy the data from other atlases. That is dangerous and wrong. It is fascinating to see, for instance, how a particular gross error that first appeared in an atlas in the early part of the 19th century is repeated by other atlases all around the world to this day. Such things merit a serious analysis. There is, regrettably, as much authoritarianism, or snobbery, if you like, in this field as in others, and so people seem to feel that they can not go wrong by uncritically adapting data from an atlas that displays the name of reputable academics among its authors. As I referred to before, these academics frequently exercise only a very limited input to mapping.
This is not to say that existing atlases should never be consulted. They could and should be, only one must handle them critically. Background knowledge is necessary to help discern their selection.It may be thought, and it is often true enough, that national historical atlases are better informed about issues of a particular country. Yet there are issues, especially those relating to nationalism in those countries, when these sources are the most dangerous. This is not the place to go into such detail, but I could name a few historical atlases that are little more than fiction – fiction, that is, of the most surreal kind. It does also help to know about the history of the countries in which the atlases were published, in the sense of being able to weigh the significance that particular dates of publications may have. The same Polish historical atlas, for example, published under communism and after its collapse, treats the situation of that country in 1939 entirely differently, simply because it was not allowed under communism to show the USSR attacking Poland in the back during the ongoing Nazi aggression. One really needs a feel to these things.
Tell us a little about your own history, your defection, and did your decision to relocate to London have anything to do with your pursuit of this career?I find it both sad and ironic, that there you were, a historical cartographer whose mind encompassed the entire world, yet you were trapped in Communist Hungary behind a political boundary that prevented your own freedom.
It was early in my life that I decided I did not want to live under Communism. The issue was not so much, or at all, personal hardship, but the falseness and lies of everything around me that made it difficult for me to live there. But it was not easy to get out. I had plans that for various reasons did not get off the ground. At the time of my first serious attempt to escape I was jailed for a few days in Yugoslavia, close to the Italian , i.e. the Free World, border, then thrown back into Hungary. It was only a moderate consolation that I managed, for the first time in my life, to throw at least a glance at the sea, symbol of Infinity, Freedom. This was, to be sure, through the window of a toilet in the jail and only if I tiptoed and, naturally, with a metal bar somewhat obscuring my view.I was able, much later, to travel as a tourist to Britain, where I then asked for asylum. Coming to London was the natural choice as most British publishers for whom I could work are concentrated here.
When the Yugoslavs freed me after three days and a half in the jail, they delivered me in a police car to the Hungarian frontier. On the way, we stopped at a Zagreb jail where they took local criminals. I was sick from worry by then. This was due to having on me, sewn under the label of my blue jeans, ten dollars. That was to be my starting capital had I succeeded in getting to Italy. I expected to be interrogated by the Hungarians at the border and, if they were to find it, all could have become quite a problem. It was forbidden for Hungarian citizens to keep any Western currency, so it would have been double trouble in that they would have undoubtedly construed it as further proof that I wanted to escape to the west, with potentially serious consequences. I don’t think many people can boast what I can, i.e., flushing ten dollars down the toilet. It was the first thing I did when the opportunity arose before reaching Hungary, at that Zagreb jail. They duly questioned me at the border, but I had a perfect answer that was based on my knowledge of maps, situations and a so-called misunderstanding that arose as a result of a ‘peninsula’ of Italy being situated at a kind of crossing of Yugoslavian space near Trieste, which it seems did confuse them as to the reality of the situation and, at least for the time being, they let me go. (Later I learned that I was deprived of any chance to go abroad for five years even if abroad was only another communist country. They never specified why. This was rather lenient, however, and indeed after not much more than two years later they let me, on appeal, go to Warsaw pact countries again. I must say that all in all I escaped remarkably lightly).
On my way to Budapest, though, from the border (one hitchhiked) then what happened? Incredibly I came across a Czech couple who were hell bent to cross the Hungarian-Austrian frontier to escape to the West! The irony of the situation was supreme. This coming after I met a fair number of other would-be escapees in jail from all over the Warsaw Pact. I spent the whole night trying to persuade them to change their plan. They were not informed and they did not know that the Hungarian-Austrian frontier was hermetically closed by an electric fence and in part probably still by stretches of minefields. (This was later abandoned, to be entirely replaced by the more ‘humane’ fence, that did not kill but merely gave signals to the border guards.) It was not without reason that I was trying to go around Yugoslavia.I was very concerned about them and eventually I managed with very great difficulties to persuade them to abandon their plan, and they too subsequently tried to escape through Yugoslavia. Unsuccessfully too, I learned later when they turned up at my place in Budapest.
Being something of an iconoclast, were you ever able to beat the Communist system?
I once somehow met a group of Westerners, mainly Italians and Spanish, who came to Hungary to a Summer University in the town of Veszprem (those who decided, on the merit of my recommendation to go to Lake Balaton, can visit it too, easily, as it is not far. It also is worthwhile to see.) Completely by accident, a so-called Summer Camp of the university I attended then was also in Veszprem. I would not have dreamt of participating in such things. That kind of voluntary work was not actually obligatory in Hungary by that time, it was only recommended career-wise. I did not care and did not go. But with my newly-found friends nearby, it became an attractive option to stay there, free. So I appeared on the scene and people I knew there were apologetic that they could not offer me any place to sleep other than in the girls’ tent, which I did not so terribly mind. Some of the girls were a little squeamish, if that is the right word, about my presence, but the majority informed them that they were foolish, and so they shut up and all went well.
The camp was also international. There were groups from other Communist countries (all students), including the USSR. I met some of them, and mentioned this later to the Italians, who happened also to be all Communists. Nice people otherwise, but misguided in their politics. They were euphoric. Could I help them meet the Soviet comrades? The Soviet comrades were equally enthusiastic to meet their Italian comrades. Very unfortunately I caught a cold and, being ill, I returned to Budapest. It is an eternal loss that I missed being present. I later learned from the Italians that the way the historic encounter went was this: The Russians received them with great honor. One of them spoke Italian, so language was not a problem. They mutually congratulated each other over what good communists they all were and how great that was. I am not sure by now if it took only a quarter of an hour or a full half hour, but after some exchange of ideas they both started to scream at each other shouting “You fascists! You fascists!” then soon the whole meeting collapsed. I was laughing loudly when I heard that, and felt extremely contented as I saw that both were right. The Italians, at least, had a sense of humor and they were happy to see my point even if they did not quite share it.
How are you contacted by publishers? How were you contacted, for example, to draw the map for ‘Roanoke’? [i.e., Lee Miller’s ‘Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony]
I send out letters when the going gets tough, offering my services. This happens on average once every 18 months. Maybe just once every two years.And then if they need something they phone, write, or send an email. Sometimes there is an informal ongoing relationship, as in the case of Random House. I have done some other things for them before they let me loose on you. (See examples of the work Andras did for Lee at: http://www.historyonmaps.com (click on “A rare combination…”, and then on Black & White Samples in the menu on the left side of the screen, going to I27 and I28, when there).
We know that history and maps are your hobbies as well as your career. What other sorts of things do you like to do?
Hitchhiking, talking with people, exchanging ideas.
You bill yourself as an iconoclast – and once told me that you grew up with a hedgehog living in your bathtub.Is this normal for cartographers, or does this come from your ready-for-anything escapades?
You mean Jeremy? I named it after a character in the film ‘Yellow Submarine’, whom it seemed to resemble. I was hitching with a friend in the eastern part of the country, and when he left the roadside for a few minutes to hide in some bushes for a reason the discerning reader already suspects, he came back with a hedgehog, telling me that he had found it. I thought that this was an opportunity not to be missed and decided to take it home. (How many other hedgehogs can boast traveling via hitchhiking, I wonder?) It was late at night by the time I got home to Budapest. My parents were asleep by then, and I, not being sure what to do with a hedgehog at that hour, simply deposited it in the bath so as to leave a decision for the next day. My parents, I heard, were a bit surprised by finding it in the bath. Few hedgehogs normally made it to the center of that rather big town, I am sure, and to the third floor there, in the bath. There was no water in the tub, however.
Later I let it roam freely in the flat and my parents not only did not mind, but my father even expressed contentment over seeing me showing affection at all, even if only to a hedgehog. (Have I really been such a horror?) It was more romantic, though, when I was sitting with a girl on my bed a week or two later, chatting, and Jeremy was walking up and down between us. Incidentally, she came to borrow one of my historical atlases to use as part of the preparation for her exams. Jeremy got transferred after a while, given his prickilyness, that might have caused complications. I am sure though that my father would have been contented again, had he been around. With the coming of winter, I thought it advisable to take Jeremy back to an area where nature was close, so that it could find a place to dig itself in to hibernate, as hedgehogs do. No news since.
Tell me about some of the interesting people you’ve met in your travels.I understand that half the world comes to you in London, with great tales of journeys undertaken.
I have many visitors.They are mostly Hungarians, whether from Hungary proper or Transylvania, but I also was host for months of an American girl from Ohio, and other people from the U.S. and Mexico, and some other places I don’t immediately recall.
In Budapest, until I left it, I counted that people from 21 different countries from all over the world had stayed at my place. This meant, of course, many more people, as some countries offered a regular supply of friends and friends of friends.
On one occasion I met in a youth hostel in Poland a guy from Honduras. He came later to stay at my place for a honeymoon with his recently wed Polish wife. My experience in honeymoons is limited, but I doubt that most are like theirs was. As I was showing them around in Budapest, once one of them pulled me aside, complaining bitterly about the other; then the other was doing exactly the same a few minutes later. Again and again. It was weird.
Once, I met an Italian at Thessaloniki, as I was hitching from London to Istanbul to get over my disappointment in love. (Both girls abandoned me.) He intended to take pictures as a photojournalist of the Iraq-Iran war. I advised him not to, as he might well get killed. He did not listen, and was lucky to only be arrested by the Persians as soon as he crossed the Turkish frontier, as I learned from him at midnight four years later, when he rang my bell in London, announcing a stay for a week. He had been living with Turaegs in Africa for years, and had various adventures washing gold in South America, but that is not my story really.
There were many other interesting situations, possibly more interesting ones. All kinds of people gave me lifts. In Hungary, I was taken on one occasion by a car belonging to the Communist Party’s Central Committee. True, it was only the driver who was in it, not the real bastards (if I am allowed to use the expression). Still, it would be something not too distinct as if in the US, Air Force One would give you a lift, though without the president on board. (No comparison of the quality of the people involved, only their power.)
At another time that was truly unique, I was hitching with a friend who was paralytic, unable to use his legs. The way we were proceeding was that he was sitting somewhere and I was doing the actual work. When a car stopped he got on his crutches, got inside and off we went. On one occasion we were left near a railway line crossing point, where traffic stopped when the train was approaching. That gave me an opportunity to ask people, as cars had to wait, if they would take us. It was tempting to ask the most luxurious cars’ people. I explained the situation that it was the two of us who wanted a lift (my friend’s presence was not obvious), and why was he sitting just there. They said OK. We got in, the barrier went up and we were proceeding. During the ensuing conversation, one of the men said that they really took us on account of my friend, as he sympathized, himself having also difficulties with walking. Then something began to dawn on me. I said to him, “Look, I am sorry if I ask something really silly, but is it just conceivable that you happen to be a bishop?” (He was wearing everyday clothes, nothing priest-like.) He was and he was astonished, how did I know. Bishops in that then Communist country did not as a rule feature in the press or television. Completely by accident, I had been at a Catholic mass a few weeks before then merely because a friend of mine was playing the oboe there as part of some big event. I don’t recall what it was, but it was clearly a much bigger occasion than an ordinary mass. There was much ceremony, and my then girlfriend, also present, proved to be something of a rebel despite her own devoted Catholic faith. We all detested the overdone ceremony, not least the (as it seemed) affected behavior of a bishop present. His unnatural pretentious way of walking invited in particular our displeasure, so much so that my girlfriend, alone in the Church, refused to go down on her knees in front of him. Suddenly, in that car, everything fell into place. It was him, and I learned that his walking was not what it seemed to be. His damaged legs disobeyed him and what seemed to be some kind of stagey circus was in reality his illness. I felt humbled and it was confession time. Not in a religious sense, but I told him what we thought and why. He understood, and was impressed that a person such as myself went to his mass at all. It all ended cathartic and extremely friendly.
Remaining with high rank priests, (how many of your readers are going to give me credit for this?) I was almost certainly riding once on the knees of the Pope. This was not through hitchhiking, and it was before he became Pope. I had been with a few other Hungarians in the Wowel in Cracow. It is a medieval fort-like building, in Church handling, frequented by tourists.
A priest approached us, inquiring where we were from, then engaging in friendly conversation. We discussed, inevitably, politics too. I was fiercely critical of all communist regimes and he put it to me, how do I dare to speak so openly, what is my guarantee that he is not an informer? I said –“My guarantee? It is your cloths.”I could tell that he liked that. The church in Poland was very anti-regime those days. Later he invited us to his quarters. It was huge hall. A lady appeared, bringing tea and such. A long friendly conversation was then conducted in many languages (no one of us spoke Polish and he did not speak Hungarian, but we made all up as a combination of English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian, depending which of us was talking and in what language words came. Then before our departure, as an expression of Christian love, he embraced the four of us truly nicely, making in effect to sit on his knees for a moment, two one side, two on the other, and we departed.
Two years later, when I learned that Karol Woytyla, Archbishop of Cracow, became the Pope, I recalled the event. My memory of faces is very bad, but his height, his languages, all fitted. I asked Polish friends, who were firm in their stating that if it was a high rank priest we met at the Wowel and he had his quarters there, then there was no chance that he was other than the Archbishop of Cracow, Woytyla. Wow. He had actually a special effect on me. As part of my general fooling around at the time, I was wearing an enamel badge then made for me by a friend artistically on order that read ‘No responsibility accepted for any extreme statement made by Andras Bereznay’. He saw it on me and asked what it was. I translated it. He did not laugh, rather put it to me simply: “Are you degrading yourself?” It was extremely apt. I was doing that precisely even if only as a joke, to serve as a form of self defense in the then political climate, to take away the edge, just in case. What he said, though, with that penetrating insight, touched me immediately and deeply, and I abandoned that bad joke soon.
When you look into the future, what would you like to be doing in your career down the road? Directing projects more than following an author’s directions, etc?
Yes, of course. I have done it, too, a lot already. Authors, others that is,enter the picture almost exclusively when it is only cartography that I do. When creating historical maps, I am the author, not only of the maps but at times of the attached text, too. It’s not unusual for authors to base their texts on the maps that I compiled. That was their task in the Times Atlas of European History, in particular.
In my ideal world, I would concentrate on developing my own historical atlases, without wasting time by offering myself. I am convinced that this would be not only better for me, but it would be a more valuable contribution.