Alastair Bonnett

 

On his book Beyond the Map: Unruly Enclaves, Ghostly Places, Emerging Lands and Our Search for New Utopias

Cover Interview of February 20, 2019

The wide angle

In the early 1990s I got involved with one of the more outré forms of geography, known as psychogeography. This involved a lot of unplanned, drifting walks and purposely getting lost by using a map of one place to navigate oneself around another. We thought we were terribly avant-garde but, in hindsight, what strikes me about the yearning that spurred us to re-enchant the ordinary world, is just how ordinary and widely shared it is.

If I’m honest, my need to find places that are, often literally, ‘off the map’, is not an intellectual or political project but something felt. I blame Epping. It’s where I was born and grew up. It’s one of many commuter towns near London, pleasant enough but, with each passing year, becoming that bit less distinct; merging into an ever-widening penumbra of other suburban nowheres. As I used to rattle out to Epping on the subway or drive there along London’s orbital motorway, I often felt as if I were travelling from nowhere to nowhere. In response, escaped territories, enclaves of otherness, shy hints of the past, leftovers and remnants, took on a totemic power.

Eventually I became a professor of geography; though it is those early memories that still remind me that geography is not a dead list of facts but something urgent and emotionally charged. I have another important memory. Visiting my granny as a small boy, in her chilly house surrounded by overgrown fields, I’d wrinkle my nose at the thick scent of coal tar soap, mothballs and door blankets; hear the ticking clock above the snapping coals in the fire. I was swaddled in the past. We’d drive to her remote Suffolk village across sandy heaths and pass row upon row of neat new terraced homes behind the high wire fences of the adjacent US Air Force base. The serried lines of back garden barbecues, as well as the base’s substantial pile of ‘free-fall nuclear bombs,’ all seemed primed and ready to go. The contrast between the fuggy comfort of granny’s home and the prospect of Armageddon, of the winding down, the falling away of village life and the spectacle of world-shaping power, lodged itself in my heart. I began to understand that places are strange, layered, full of ghosts and possibilities and that they have stories to tell.