by Alan Ereira author of The Nine Lives of John Ogilby: Britain's Master Map Maker and His Secrets
The first glimmerings of this journey began, for me, when I was 17 and learning about the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Continuing to explore the philosophy of the new science as an undergraduate, I became intrigued by the connection between philosophical and mathematical enquiry in the period. That is when I learned about the “general crisis”, the widespread political collapse of the mid-17th century, and decided that I wanted to investigate the connection between that, the new science and the new philosophy. When I started writing history books I formed the notion of finding a way to explore these questions through the narrative of a single life. The book was commissioned, but I found I could not make it work. The problem was the man who I was accompanying through the century, a Scottish Protestant thinker and divine called John Drury. I found I did not really enjoy his company, and while I had plenty of enthusiasm for everything happening around him, I had much less for him.
So I carried on with my life, never losing sight of the core question and then being driven back to it by an indigenous people in America, the Kogi. They had deliberately hidden themselves but seeing changes in temperature and rainfall, migration patterns and water flow, they had deduced our responsibility and demanded that I help them warn us. It was a very strange experience to engage with a highly sophisticated pre-literate bronze-age civilization. They explained how losing sight of the nature of reality and its governing laws has brought us to behave the way we do
I gradually realised that the basic ideas they were explaining were not an oddity, but had actually been the way most human beings used to think about their place in the world. Which brought me back to the question, how and why did we change? When began the process that overthrew the old world and eventually left only the hidden Kogi as the guardians of our old way of knowing?
At that point I was asked to produce a TV series with Terry Jones following the roads mapped through Wales in John Ogilby’s road atlas of 1675, Britannia. And so I came back to the 17th century, and now to a man who began life as a dancer in a culture where dance ruled both royal courts and courts of justice, and who ended his life as a crippled cosmographer with a measuring wheel, making hidden ways open and calculable.
So far, so good. But making the films led to the surprising discovery that the roads Ogilby had mapped were not really the principal roads he said they were, and that he appeared to be creating a handbook for the suppression of Parliament and the creation of a new absolute monarchy. That is when my work really began, and an entirely new story gradually came to light. The story of mapping secrets.