Alastair Bonnett is a Professor of Social Geography and has played a part in psychogeographical and anarchist circles. His book Off the Map: Lost Places, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World reflects all his various interests and makes for thoughtful, entertaining and engaging essays about some very peculiar places.
Bonnett is particularly interested in the idea of ‘place’, what is does, could and should mean to us, especially in a world where the virtual place has come to have so much meaning. One of the places he writes about is a virtual town, Kijong-dong, built by North Korea within site of the border with South Korea in the 1950s in order to tempt South Koreans into defecting, or at least foaming with jealousy at the apparent riches of the North. There are Soviet-style apartment blocks where the lights go on and off automatically and there is no glass in the windows. Loudspeakers still blare instructive and inspiring thoughts and speeches from the Kims’ omnipotent dynasty play day and night. No one lives here, no one has ever lived here.
Several of the places Bonnett writes about did have populations that lived, loved, played and fought amongst what are now deserted ruins: Pripyat in the Ukraine, just 3km from the infamous Chernobyl Nuclear Plant (the animals and plants now inhabiting this place are just a little odd) and Aghdam, the splintered and broken bone fought over by Azerbaijan and Armenia. He investigates the destruction of Old Mecca, the various buildings that symbolised the different historical strands of Islam being overlayed by the contemporary fundamentalist architecture and history. The little lost spaces, traffic islands and Manhattan’s gutterspaces, are admired and recorded as are the ephemeral islands that arise and sink depending on tides or volcanic activity.
Bonnett speculates about why any of these places are important to us, why any ‘place’ has meaning for any one person. There are no real answers – or perhaps too many of them. I did find myself looking at and thinking about some of the ‘lost’ spaces around this city.
Whether it is one of the pirate towns of coastal Somalia or the North Cemetery in Manila, the writing is lively, wryly humorous, sometime quite poignant. Bonnett’s fascinations draw you in and his musings provoke much thought – and almost every place Bonnett writes about includes the Google Earth coordinated for the centre of the place the essay is about, so you can look them up and peer at them – which is great good fun!