South by Merlin Coverley, Oldcastle, £12.99
Why do we favour one direction and not the other? Why has the north, historically, always been prioritised over the south? This question marks the starting point for Merlin Coverley’s rich and detailed account of our cultural responses to the very notion of “south”.
He begins by noting that it wasn’t only Europeans who gave precedence to the north but also people who lived near the Equator, such as the Mayans and Incas, who had no geographical reason to do so. Why is this? Coverley asks. The fixed position of the North Star and its usefulness as a beacon and homing guide may account for some of this phenomenon, but there is no doubt that “north” has always been privileged in our imaginations over “south”. Texts as wide-ranging as those from Reformation-era Europe and 16th-century China demonstrate a marked prejudice against the south, where, as one Chinese scribe puts it, civilisation ends and barbarians begin.
There are, and always have been, north-south divides. The United Kingdom has one. Europe as a whole does too – the north being mostly industrial and Protestant, while the south is generally more bucolic and Catholic.
Coverley traces these prejudices and desires through the history of literature and travel. The 18th-century Grand Tour made the south seem a sensuous and exotic geography, laid out for wealthy European travellers to gawp at. Goethe’s Italian Journey is presented as one of the foundational texts which enshrined this view, but Coverley’s literary excavations range far and wide, from JG Ballard’s myths of southern disintegration to Borges on the peculiar nature of Argentina’s southern regions. There are also fascinating looks at the early modern craze for southern exploration, from the initial voyage of Captain Cook to Scott’s dismal disappearance into the white deserts of Antarctica. Sometimes the book can be tough-going. Despite this, South is an original and thought-provoking piece of psychogeography.