Lost? Find yourself by losing yourself. And use this book as a guide. RICHARD POPLAK reviews an essential read.
The South African poet Lionel Abrahams once reminded us that, “Memory takes root only half in the folds of the brain: half’s in the concrete streets we have lived along.” Abrahams was Johannesburg’s unofficial poet laureate, the reigning flâneur of an unwalkable city. He spent the last decades of his life confined to a wheelchair, and I have always imagined him rolling slowly over the city’s unused sidewalks, peering through the shadows cast by brutalist high rises and Victorian-era mining houses.
Abrahams understood that cities—our cities—are haunted places: Johannesburg, which is in a constant process of erasing itself and its history, is crowded with the ghosts of ghosts. In his poem “Connection”, written in 1999, Abrahams rendered the looming twenty-first century as a “hurricane of sheer futurity”, one that would “change change itself, language and history”. The poet’s role, the flâneur’s job, was to slow time by acknowledging the spaces in between, the gaps in the agreed-upon world that acted as reliquaries for what we’d lost.
Abrahams remains largely unknown outside of South African literary circles, but I wonder what Alistair Bonnett, author of the astounding Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, And Other Inscrutable Geographies, would make of him. Both men share an almost religious devotion for revealing the unseen. Bonnett, however, is the uber-flâneur, a writer who travels Google Earth just as comfortably as he does the by-ways of his concrete-hewn hometown, Newcastle. His Unruly Places is a force-field against Abraham’s hurricane of sheer futurity, and yet it feels so powerfully of our time that it can’t help bearing some of the future’s steely rush. The book is alarming, revelatory, moving, essential—it is an act of homecoming.
Which means, blessedly, that it is not a travelogue. Bonnett has gathered 47 machine-shopped essays into eight themes—Floating Islands, Hidden Geographies, Dead Cities, etc.—all of which detail the “uncanny places, the losers in the march of progress.” Now a professor of social geography at Newcastle University, he set out on this journey way back in 1994, when he began editing the psychogeographic touchstone Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration. The magazine featured pieces like “An Account of Some Experimental Dérive in Newcastle”, in which a map of Berlin is used to navigate a Newcastle daycare centre. Transgressions met the death of most $40 avant-garde journals, but it was in its heyday, quite frankly, awesome. The magazine drew upon Situationist theory, in particular the work of Guy Debord, who insisted that advanced capitalism deadened us to our cities, which were designed to turn us into extras from Walking Dead. It was the job of the psychogeographer to break through, to unzombify.
Unruly Places, then, is a masterwork of dérive, the art of subverting the control implicit in urban environments by forcing unplanned encounters with place. But it also reaches far beyond all that dusty theory, and far beyond the city. It is a personal work, a culmination: Bonnett insists that we’ve forgotten the ancient primacy of place, the very human need for a genus loci. It seems thunkingly obvious, but we are local citizens first, and global citizens last: all our deadly disagreements can be reduced to either the protection or expansion of home. A cry for enlightened topophilia is Unruly Places unifying subject matter, with one important caveat: “we want to have a world that is not totally known,” Bonnett writes.
And so we are dragged to some marquee joints like Pripyat, inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone; Geneva’s Freeport, stuffed with rich people’s tax-free Rembrandts; and Kijong-dong, the fake North Korean city built on the fringes of the DMZ for no other purpose than to lure southerners toward the bright lights of the commie utopia. But what of the J. G. Ballardian traffic island on Newcastle’s A167(M), which Bonnet passes by on his way to work every morning? Or Parking Lot E at Los Angeles Airport, where airline workers bunk down in a RV community and rest under the ceaseless roar of machines—one of those “non-places that are the byproduct of a ceaseless need to keep moving”? Or gutterspaces, the shards of New York City that a handful of residents purchased and maintained in the 70s and 80s, tiny slivers of the steadily eroding American Dream?
Most of these places are, of course, impossibilities in an entirely Googleable universe, but Bonnett reminds us that even search engines get it wrong. It’s no accident that Sandy Island—neither sandy nor an island, nor an actual place—is the book’s first destination. Fifteen hundred miles east of Queensland, Australia, it was “discovered” in 1876, and promptly undiscovered some years later. And yet, it lingers. Writes Bonnet:
[A]lthough we live with the expectation that the world is fully visible and exhaustively known , we also want and need places that allow our thoughts to roam unimpeded. The hidden and remarkable places are havens for the geographical imagination, redoubts against the increasingly if not exhaustively all-seeing chart that has been built up over the past two hundred years.
In this, Unruly Places is a quietly radical text, struggling against successive tides of rationalism and the “panoptic knowledge” that eradicates mystery and advocates control. The book functions as an elegy for what we’ve lost, and a plea for another world within the world—a world in which topophiliacs (AKA humans) can fall in love with place all over again. The only weapon we have against the Saudis turning Old Mecca into a shopping mall, or the Russians erasing Leningrad with a spiffed up St. Petersburg? Memory. And not only of place, but of the need for place. Bonnet reminds that if we don’t acknowledge the ghosts, if we don’t enter their homes as if they were our own, then we lose something vital. As his forbear, the proto-flâneur Michel de Certeau, once noted, “Haunted places are the only ones people can live in.” Go there, and take Bonnett’s book as a map. DM
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas