Alastair Bonnett on the intersection of place, identity, and imagination.
Earlier this month, Newcastle University professor Alastair Bonnett released Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies, cataloging dozens of different locations where one can still manage to jump off the map of the known world. His work also makes a case for leaving some places on the planet permanently unmapped.
More than a depiction of history and environment, Bonnett explores the social meaning of each "unruly" destination and the paradoxes that traveling to these places raise. He concludes, “Unruly places have the power to disrupt our expectations and to re-enchant geography. They force us to realize how many basic human motivations—such as the need for freedom, escape, and creativity—are bound up with place. From Sandy Island to Stacey’s Lane, we have seen how people pour their hopes and fears into place.”
Bonnett spoke to CityLab about the book and the journey of writing it.
How did you come to find and develop interest in these specific places?
Being an academic geographer for 20 years and teaching and researching about all sorts of different aspects and the discipline, I became increasingly interested in encouraging people to understand the importance of geography, but also to take the idea of place seriously. It seems to me that historians’ or architectural critics' messages get across easily, but human attraction or reliance to place hasn’t found its constituency. So, my interest was to find a way of writing about place that appealed to people, and do that in a way with hopes of re-enchanting geographical imagination.
The book is a compendium of stories about eclectic places as well as an analysis of urban-affairs issues. Why does it seem now that the intersection of geography and urban affairs is so topical?
There has been a real upsurge in interest ... in the idea of writing and thinking about places and spaces of the world. You can see that in fiction and nonfiction. You can see that in artists who are interested in ... changing the relationship to place. And you see an upsurge in re-creating the geographical imagination. It’s partly because there is a sense of frustration but also potential in the way the world experiences these things.
We see the world as a completely known entity. [Now] that the world is immediately accessible through Google Earth—this is something that has changed and in a way built on 200 years of exploration. Even at end of the 19th century, people said there was nothing left to explore. Now I think we have reached a new level—a stage of crisis that has resulted in people wanting to re-create their geography by imaging it in new ways. There is something about place that we are inevitably attached to.
At times you interject yourself into these essays and include stories of places closer to home for you. Why was this important to do?
We can’t really re-enchant geography that is hundreds of miles away. Not only do these journeys cost a lot of money, but they have become quite monotonous. There has become a banalization of long-distance travel, and maybe of travel itself. So, what are we left with? Where do we go? We have to look at ordinary places. It’s a challenge, but these are the new frontiers on this planet—the frontiers a few hundred yards from the front door.
To me, it seemed you were saying that place is inseparable from person.
Yes. That is an important point I wanted to make. It was sign to me. I’m so interested in place because I come from a non-place, a generic suburban town outside London. Growing up, I really wanted it to have more meaning and I couldn’t find that meaning, so I had to invent it. And I fully admit there is some nostalgia in the book. But I feel that nostalgia [to be] necessary.
You also make the point that places can be not only abandoned or destroyed, but erased from maps. Can you address this particular paradox: that people can be tied to a place by inhabitance, memory, or story, and yet have minimal control over its outside recognition?
Many points I’m raising [in my book] are to bring out paradox, particularly to think of borders. People, especially academic geographers and in often polemical terms, say that we are better off without borders. Talk about borders makes us nervous, and yet there seems to be something necessary about them. I point out that, without borders, there would be nowhere to leave or run away to. What the imagination seems to crave is diversity and distinction.
I think the Internet [including Google Maps and Google Earth] more generally allows people to write about and create place. The stories in this book are about the journey between place and people taking control. Yes, there is a paradox in that we don’t have control. But I guess that the pleasure is that people can find those discreet blemishes. That’s why I lead with Sandy Island [a non-existent island that was charted for over a century]. It gives people a strange kind of hope that, within the map, they'll discover something Google missed, that there are still places for people to discover.
In addressing these places as paradoxes I came to understand them less as conflicting and more as reciprocal. I’m thinking of the Architectural Project of Sicilian Incompletion—that we, as occupiers of a place, can play a defining role in its repurposing.
Yes, the Sicilian example I was attracted to because of the efforts of locals to try and create whole new sets of meanings within the landscape. This was a town overlaid with monumental edifices paid for by local government to wean local membership off of the mafia. These huge constructions dominate the town, so one might be living in landscape of modern ruins and all the desolation that is implied. But [what was] interesting was these people wanting to reclaim this landscape and give it a new attractive identity. Why can’t we do that with modern ruins? This kind of tourism is a different type of play on geography and imagination. And I end the book with this idea of play and children and den-making and my own reflection on my childhood. Maybe that’s why I’m so attached to this idea of play to geography, that we can recreate something in our own image.
You reference quite a few key figures and voices in social theory, from Hegel to James Kunstler. In the book, you quote Salman Rushdie on the sort of catchall dilemma: “There is also this mighty conflict between the fantasy of Home and the fantasy of Away, the dream of roots and the mirage of the journey.” How have you reconciled this and do you think this book can help readers to do that? Should they?
I do come back to that quote and the mighty conflict of the fantasy of Home and Away. I mention places that seem to try and heal that conflict. The example is [a] residential ship allowing affluent people to be at home and at sea at the same time. But I don’t think it really works in healing that divide. A boat can’t really be a home. It’s a temporary settlement. I don’t want to leave people with this idea that these are easy dilemmas or that they are easily resolved. It’s better to live with the pleasure of escape and pleasure of home and to find ways to move between them, to understand that conflict and risk are going to be with you all your life. I’m not going to find some happy place where all problems are resolved. I don’t see my journey about resolving things. It is about living out what it is to be human—and that is a fraught place.
This interview has been edited and condensed.