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

A close-up

Beyond the Map is the kind of book you can dip into anywhere. Reviewers often call it ‘quirky’ and the individual chapters are very different from each other; some are sombre (for example, the chapter on the geography of the Islamic State) but many are playful (for example, the chapter where I tell the story of how my street declared independence from Britain after the UK’s ‘Brexit’ vote).

Playful or not, every chapter investigates our changing and curious relationship with place. A good example is my attempt to find a legendary ‘phantom tunnel’ in the busiest train station in the world. About four million people a day pass through the countless levels, 200 exits and 36 platforms of Shinjuku Station in the heart of Tokyo. It is a temple of efficiency and signage, but there is a legend attached to it. It’s not a legend from days of yore; it’s a modern legend that reflects the fears and fantasies that come to life in an overwhelming metropolis.

Sometimes called the Bermuda Triangle of Tokyo, the story goes that some commuters never make it home. They take a wrong turn, then another, get flustered, run down the wrong stairs and end up in the wrong elevator, until they find them­selves quite alone in a quiet corridor, the soft boom of a distant underground train sounding somewhere far above them. They are never seen again.

On a hot and humid day in late August I entered Shinjuku’s maw. It’s not rush hour, but people are pouring through the broad, immaculately clean and well-signed corridors. I thought I’d need to get through the ticket barriers to go into the belly of this thing, but after some toing and froing through a few of them, with the assistance of some puzzled staff (the barriers here open to let you in, but if you haven’t gone anywhere they won’t let you out), I’m finding that the loneliest spots are in the meeting ground between the station and the giant shopping complex that engulfs it. For all its many exits and corridors, the station is just one element of a much bigger labyrinth. It is in this interzone where the crowds thin out and I am able to worm my way down deeper and deeper, heading into the furthest and quietest corners of the labyrinth. It takes about twenty minutes, down an escalator, down some more stairs and another escalator, before I’m anywhere that isn’t a major thoroughfare. It’s a stairwell with no signage and I head down again; and here the noises of the crowd have softened to almost nothing. It’s a beguiling contrast; the idea of ever returning up there, I suddenly realise, is deeply unappealing. It’s so nice to hear the clip of my own footsteps. The lighting here is not so bright, the cleaning regime less evident; there are even a few items of litter, blown down from above, and a man is slumped against a huge paper shopping bag on the flight below me. He’s very still, his unseeing eyes focused on nothing ...