William Palmer

Navigating the Past

Maps of My Life


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This odd and amiable book could best be described as a memoir told with the aid of maps. Each chapter is prefaced with a map; Ordnance Survey maps show where the author was born – Chipping Norton – and other Oxford villages where he lived as a child. Maps of Niagara Falls and Jamaica, of San Salvador and New Mexico, are supplemented by plans of a house in Oxford and a POW camp in Germany. Another chart illustrates the distribution of Native American tribes in America. All of these bear more or less upon the story of the author’s life and are annotated with autobiographical minutiae attached to geographical features, such as ‘Shock discovery of Sandrine’s underarm hair’ (in Normandy) or ‘Lederhosen storage facility’ (in Oxford). The publishers compare this book to Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent, though in fact it is closer to Bryson’s Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. But where Bryson made the very ordinariness of his American childhood almost surreal and moving, Browning is ironic in a very English way. There is a lot that is genuinely funny. Regarding a parade of shops in Botley, that unlovely suburb of Oxford, he remarks, ‘If any word in the English language smells of urine it’s the word precinct.’

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