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My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross

And the Meaning of Truth

 

What Do Map Experts Say

about Mrs. P's Journey...?

 

In this section I am posting two selections that qualify as expert cartographical opinion about my sister and the A-Z, linking to a third one, and am saving the fourth as a surprise. The first is by the British journalist Peter Watts and should lead us directly, as you will see, to the second. Here it is:

Urban legends: 

Phyllis Pearsall and the A-Z

Posted on October 25, 2010 

by peterwatts1975

The story of Phyllis Pearsall and the A-Z is one of London’s most enduring and endearing myths. To take but one example, here’s the Design Museum‘s version of how, in 1935, Pearsall couldn’t find her way to a party in Belgravia so decided to make a completely new map of London, which she did by getting up at 5am each morning and walking every one of London’s 23,000 streets – a distance of 3,000 miles.

http://designmuseum.org/design/phyllis-pearsall

The result was the A-Z, the first street atlas of London.

You’ll find this story everywhere, often repeated word for word, which is usually a sign something is up. Here it is on the BBC.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/5371680.stm

Here it is in Time Out.

http://www.timeout.com/london/things-to-do/jodie-harsh-on-phyllis-pearsall-mbe

Here it is on Wikipedia.

[and Watts would be correct here too, except this is the revised version, after years finally changed to partially refute the myth]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phyllis_Pearsall

And here’s some sap repeating it in an excerpt from a book on Amazon.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/London-City-Lit-Heather-Reyes/dp/0955970059

Peter Barber reckons it’s nonsense. And as the head of maps at the British Library, he should know.

‘The Phyllis Pearsall story is complete rubbish,’ Barber told me. ‘There is no evidence she did it and if she did do it, she didn’t need to.’

Barber maintains first of all that the first street-indexed map of London was made in 1623 by John Norden, but his reservations are not just academic. Pearsall’s father, Alexander Gross, had been a map-maker and produced map books of London that were almost identical to the A-Z in everything but name. They looked the same and used the same cartographical tricks. It’s Barber’s belief that Pearsall simply updated these maps to include the newly built areas of outer London and called the result the ‘A-Z’.

‘She was a great myth-maker,’ says Barber. ‘But English Heritage investigated the story and decided not to award her a blue plaque because it was not felt she’d done anything to deserve one [Pearsall does have a plaque, but it was awarded by Southwark]. It was marketing and it’s a very pervasive myth, she was a lovable character and
people want to believe it.’

So did she really walk those streets or not? Here, Barber is hard to pin down. In writing he is equivocal, as the final comment here shows, but in conversation he makes his position pretty clear.

‘Pearsall was building on a body of information that had been around for years,’ he says. ‘What she may have done is be more thorough in mapping the new areas that cropped up between the wars, and there were two ways of doing this. You could either tramp the streets of outer suburbia for hours on end, or you could visit the local council office and ask for their plans. Which do you think she did?’

*   *   *

Peter Barber himself sums up this entire matter as follows on page 335 of his authoritative London: A History in Maps, co-published by the London Topographical Society and the British Library:

"An A to Z?

"Sandor Gross (Alexander Gross) was an enterprising Hungarian-Jewish emigre who founded the Geographia map publishing company. In 1913 he decided to follow the lead of other companies like Philips' in its ABC Guide to London of 1911 by producing a London street atlas. In order to improve legibility, he, like Philips, exaggerated the width of streets at the expense of nearby open spaces. He also included full grid references in the index. Although (unlike Philips) there was the occasional vignette of a building, essentially this was an A to Z before its time. Gross was the father of Phyllis Pearsall, the publisher of the first A to Z. "


"The A to Z

"Phyllis Pearsall published the first A to Z Atlas in 1936 under the direction, she states on the title page, of her father Alexander Gross. Though he was then a US resident, they communicated via cable. There was nothing new about the concept of the atlas and even the information on house numbers in long streets had been seen earlier, but the area covered was much expanded to take account of London's growth since 1918. Mrs. Pearsall was an energetic walker of streets, and claimed to have got her information from notes taken during her walks. But reliable information on new street names and even street numberings was available from local town halls without the need for such efforts. First editions are very rare: a tesimonial to the A to Z's usefulness and Phyllis Pearsall's marketing skills."

*   *   *

And now you can take a look at our third selection, namely the piece currently on wikipedia, which you can reach by clicking here.  Please come back, because I am just getting started...

At this point I believe I'm permitted to chime in as an expert, since as Phyllis' half-brother I received the same training from our father as she did. We constantly find articles and even reference works claiming that Phyllis walked all the streets of London in order to create the A-Z. For instance, here's how this statement appeared in a review by the Times Literary Supplement:

"She walked London’s streets eighteen hours a day for a year, in order to give the city the map she believed it needed."

Precisely how likely is this statement? Fortunately I am in an excellent position to shed light on this claim, and I intend to do so. If anything, I was trained more thoroughly during the Fifties than she was during the Thirties, since Papa and I were located together in the same city, while Phyllis gained much of her knowledge via mail or cable. I also trudged up and down streets to gain precise cartographical knowledge, but this was for the purpose of creating a gazetteer guide with street numbers at every corner, and at that time these could only be gained by walking the streets and making notes on a clipboard. Our gazetteer guides differed from atlases and are used by policemen, delivery men, and others for finding the quickest way of reaching any specific address.

This was not in London but out on Long Island's burgeoning Nassau County during the early Fifties, epicenter for the postwar baby boom, when entire new towns were springing up like mushrooms in suburbs across the nation to house vast numbers of newly affuent citizens and their expanding families.

Clearly this was also a challenge for cartographers, who had no choice but to send workers into the field to keep track of what was happening. It was my father's intention to make sure I learned map making from the ground up, and so for a time I became one of these footloose cartographers.

Just in case you truly imagine that my sister "walked London’s streets eighteen hours a day for a year," I'm going to tell you what it's really like walking up and down all the streets of a highly populated area, clipboard in hand, gazing thoughtfully at every house located on a corner and scribbling down notes as legibly as you can. I didn't last very long at the job, and after I've finished telling you why, I'll let you decide how long Phyllis was likely to have lasted.

First of all, I had just finished college, which means it was summertime, when New York is famous for its heat and humidity. This meant I was usually wearing shorts as I traipsed down the seemingly endless conformist housing blocks of Nassau County one after another. They were billed as the "homes of the future" at the time, though they tend to look a bit worn and passé today.

Wearing shorts meant I was providing lots of flesh for all the dogs kept out front by these proud first-time home-owners. Luckily I got by with only a few raw-looking abrasions. Naturally the owners of the dogs never apologized—after all, these dogs had been trained to bite—or at least menace—passing strangers, and I was just some weird kid passing through and taking notes. Who knows, perhaps I was sent by the government to collect information that would cause them trouble. I also got my share of cat calls from the residents, and a few even insisted on knowing why I was walking among them, though I do also remember once being offered a glass of cool soda by a friendly dowager.

Phyllis at least had the luxury of being able to return home by tube or bus from wherever her walks through London may (or may not) have taken her. But much of Nassau is a good three hours from where I lived in upper Manhattan and subject to irregular train service, so I had no choice but to rent rooms by the week in the various towns I was sent to. This was during the early Fifties, before the motel era, so these rooms were inevitably small and poorly lit, usually located on the second floor of bars near the railway station. They were also minimally furnished, lacked air conditioning, and tended to be quite noisy until well after midnight from the jukebox and the TV in the bar below.

But there was no TV in the rooms upstairs, so once I had finished walking for the day there was absolutely nothing for me to do but read. I was already something of an intellectual snob, and I had always looked down on science fiction until then, but there was no real choice of books at the local drugstores. So that's how I first became acquainted with the works of Heinlein, Bradbury, and many others. Before then I had probably viewed literature as a shining altar housing many sacred shelves, and SF had no place among them. But now I really had no choice.

I was aware as I read my first SF stories that they were absurd, but they had a strange addictive quality about them that drew me in. I remember fantasizing about them at the time, memorizing their details, even reenacting them in my mind while I tried to fall asleep. Often they also found their way into my dreams.

The physical work of walking miles of streets each day is of course quite draining. Each night as I came back to my hotel, I recall feeling more worn out than the night before. The only remedy was a heavy meal based on all possible variants of hamburger and potatoes along with two or three glasses of beer, sometimes consumed in a local greasy spoon diner, sometimes in the bar downstairs.

The weather was hot and hazy, and I too was hot and hazy, with only my Sci-fi to cool me down. I remember on a few occasions dozing off and suddenly awakening to find the book pressing down on my nose. The thought suddenly hit me: Wow, this is how most people read, they really need it, they're desperate for something to take them outside themselves.

After the fifth week my legs had become almost too wracked with pain to carry me, and I had started to have headaches as well. Fortunately I was permitted to visit our Manhattan offices around that time and confer with our chief draftsman, who was busy etching out new Nassau County streets on our plate. Wherever there were mapping discrepancies or differences between official county plans and what I actually found on the ground, I was instructed to make little drawings conveying the exact topography as accurately as I could. I gave these drawings to our draftsman and stood with him as he found the precise place on our huge metal plate and made some sort of preliminary marks to remind him of changes he would need to etch in later.

This part of the job I found relatively congenial, but right away it was back to the Long Island Rail Road for me, and that very evening I was once again ensconced in my room above the local bar. On two occasions I was stopped and questioned by police while I was out mapping, but I was able to avoid arrest by giving them Geographia's phone number in Manhattan. By this time I had covered at least a small part of Nassau, towns with prosaic names like Farmingdale, Plainview, Hicksville, and the model home site of Levittown lay behind me, even the romantic sounding Massapequa, but at least eighty other towns remained untouched.

Probably the only place I'd covered which most Europeans would recognize as a town was Great Neck, Scott Fitzgerald's "West Egg" in Gatsby, with its older buildings and bay vistas. While hiking its streets I even happened on a motor inn, predecessor of today's motels. I remember gazing wistfully at its courtyard, which I found warm and sensual.

That's because the film Niagara had just come out the year before, with Marilyn Monroe dancing seductively in just such a motor inn courtyard as she happily cuckolded Joseph Cotton. But a motor inn was not for me—I didn't own a car or even know how to drive, so it was back to my room above the bar.

During my sixth week I began to develop recurrent nose bleeds, which continued into the seventh week. I visited a local doctor, who spent an hour cauterizing and recauterising both my nostrils. He told me he couldn't be sure I was cured and advised me to take it easy for a few weeks. He didn't even charge me a fee, because he wasn't sure he had really helped me.

At this point I phoned Papa and told him I just couldn't handle the job any more, and would he please give some kind of work I could perform in the office. He reluctantly agreed, he wasn't too happy with me, but there was also no trace of the bitter anger Phyllis describes in her 3-Street and Bedsit books. The next morning I was back in Manhattan, commuting between Inwood and Fifty-Seventh Street, and Papa found someone else to continue work on the gazetteer guide.

My nose bleeds soon stopped, and I began to feel a lot better. But Papa only had work for me two days a week, and since I now had some salary money left over from Nassau, I was free to find a small room in the West Village, haul my portable Olivetti from my mother's flat, and go through the motions of trying to be a writer. I was also free to explore the cafe and bar scene in the Village, and by and large my life grew considerably more congenial.

I had lasted no more than seven weeks walking the streets of Long Island. I'm sure that during her time at the job my sister had more stamina than I did, and I'm well aware from my own eight years in London that weather conditions differ greatly from those in New York.

But did she actually pace down all the long row houses of Bermondsy, Clapham, and Brixton? And did all those who dwelt in London's vast semi-detached world truly greet her with detachment? In other words, I still can't help wondering how long Phyllis would have really lasted marching up and down the streets of London.

So let's try for a bit of analysis. Precisely how did my experience of Papa differ from my sister's? Was Papa simply more friendly with me because I was a man, but also more furious with Phyllis because she was a woman? I don't think so. I suspect the difference may lie in what the British expect from human relationships as opposed to what many other peoples willingly accept as normal. I've explored this topic in some detail in my piece How 'Correct' Is British English? Just click, and you'll be there, but I'm almost done here, so perhaps take a look at the next  few paragraphs first.

I believe that the British seek to go through life having only minimal contact with each other and are disproportionately upset whenever others react more emotionally than they had expected. As I explain in How 'Correct', this is the basis for the strange distinction the British make between the words "rude" and "kind," a world of meaning not shared by Americans and many others. By and large Americans are prepared for—and actually enjoy—more human contact with each other than Britons do. Because we find more contacts acceptable, it follows that more of these contacts have a chance of turning out unpleasant or even dangerous than in Britain, though this has never been fully proved, as I point out in another piece I wrote during the Sixties, published in London's underground paper IT.

The American point of view would be that it is better to have more human contacts between people than fewer, the British view continues to be that fewer are more desirable. Which means that when Phyllis overreacts to what our father may (or may not) have said or done, she is simply behaving in a more British way regarding something she views as foreign and undesirable.

Anyway, after my experiences on Long Island, does anyone still believe that "Phyllis walked London’s streets eighteen hours a day for a year," as that reviewer gratuitously claimed? I believe that Phyllis definitely did not walk all those streets to finish the A-Z, even though it might have been an easier task compared to compiling house numbers on Long Island for a gazetteer guide. And she also did not create the A-Z, as Barber and Watts make clear. Beyond any doubt that honor most definitely belongs to our father. And in any work she may have done, she is sure to have relied on help from maps made by town and borough councils, as I certainly also did on Long Island. 

Though sometimes even they didn't help—housing projects were going up so fast in those days that sometimes there were no maps at all, even no neighborhoods yet, and we had to rely on a developer's glossy street plan, which might or might not end up being built as shown. When that happened, Papa had to make a judgment call, usually based on the developer's reputation, and decide whether or to what extent the developer's plan should be etched onto our plate.

Anyway, while we're on the subject of blue plaques and whether or not Phyllis deserved one, there's also a more loaded subject: should Phyllis have been awarded the MBE, or does that also more truly belong to our father, a short, swarthy, balding male Hungarian Jew, whom no one ever followed ecstatically on TV or in the press? (And yes, I've looked it up, foreigners are eligible for them too.)

Of course I must be mistaken—the English are without exception totally free of all prejudice based on ethnic or religious origins, and that could not possibly have formed the basis for this award. And of course no loyal British subject would ever dream for a moment of challenging a decision by Her Majesty's Honours Committee. But I am perfectly free to do so, after all I'm an American...


But hold on—in a sense Papa wasn't a foreigner at all. Native Britons have no choice about their nationality, but Papa could choose freely—the US, the UK, and all the nations of Mitteleuropa that laid claim to his birthplace. But Papa chose Britain..."for in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations..."

Papa had a dream, that after being swindled out of his business as a Jew, one day his reputation in England would be restored. Phyllis and I both failed him in realizing that dream, though in different ways. Perhaps there's still hope his dream will one day be fulfilled...

*   *   *

(If you wish, you may go directly to Peter Watts' web 
page by clicking here. )


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