Book Review – Off The Map by Prof Alastair Bonnett

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off-the-map

I absolutely loved this non-fiction book, ‘Off the Map – Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What they tell us about the World’, by Prof Alastair Bonnett. As an alumni of Newcastle University where Bonnett works, I’m now rather put out with myself that I had never considered looking at what social geography I could have studied as a student. This book more than made up for that though because I found this book hard to put down and I have had an incredible journey of my own reading it.

Quite a lot of my identity has been tied up to place, probably because I have moved around a lot in my life. I picked up this interesting book because the idea of different types of place peaked my interest. It also interested me that Bonnett lives and works in Newcastle, where I live and have developed an understanding of much of my own identity.

I have a very strong connection to the North East of England; I was born here, but I haven’t lived most of my life here. I’ve been here for nearly ten years now as an adult because I have chosen to stay here.  As a child though I lived elsewhere, ranging from Yorkshire to Virginia in the USA. I always identified back to the North East. I call myself a Northumbrian, and I call myself British.

I get a little prickly about calling myself English though, and that comes from having lived in America. I tried to say British, but the children I knew understood English better and then I got constantly teased and bullied for it, because in history we were always taught about how the English were the enemies and in one very painful lesson in history, talking about clothing about how the English didn’t wear underwear. Looking back now as an adult, no wonder lots of people in America claim Scottish and Irish descent, but you hear little about those of English descent.

On reading ‘Off the Map’ though and reflecting quite a lot on my own associations with place, I find myself quite lucky that my identity in terms of nationality is quite simple really. I’d heard of Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog, the village of enclaves in Northern Europe; a quaint little place of many borders made obsolete by European Union regulations. A quirk I believed I learned about on QI, the popular interesting fact-based British quiz show, which very much sugar-coated the idea of enclaves. Compare it to Chitmahals in Indian and Bangladesh, and all the quaintness disappears and transformed into being horror-struck at the abandonment they suffer.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, there are some very interesting little snippets of history in here as well. The Underground Cities of Cappadocia is fascinating, to the point that I now want to include something similar in a book. North Sentinel Island also appeals to my love of the history of exploration, by being one of those islands that are still isolated from the wider world. For all the claims and counterclaims, and territorial disputes I’ve learnt about when I studied trade routes and colonialism hearing of a place unaffected by all that is enlightening. The world is not as global connected as the media would have you believe.

There were also three other very similar places that were thought provoking for me. Gutterspaces in New York were fascinating to me and how little spaces, the cracks between developments can become something to people, when otherwise they would be abandoned nothing-spaces. The other two are local to me, Fox Den and Traffic Island, while I suspect would not be the most interesting parts of the book to the majority were incredibly thought provoking for me, because I have one of those spaces near me that I have a very deep emotional connection towards.

At the back of the train platform where I commute from each morning, there is a line of trees planted into an embankment, which are there to help muffle the noise of the trains. There is a variety of species and lots of tiny birds, none of which I know the proper names of, that I love to watch whenever I get the chance. I’ve also observed the trees as they change seasons and I photograph them when the light is particularly good or if the fog has made them eerie. And without them I quite genuinely don’t know where I would be today in terms of my mental health.

I was playing with my filters one morning and I took this photo.

Tree noir filter

The minute I saw it I realised what the hell was wrong with me; I had depression. This realisation of what was wrong with me and has been wrong with me on and off for years has been a massive realisation and relief for me. I honestly thought I was just going crazy. You might not think it looking at the photo – it’s just a dreary noir photo. Except you weren’t there with me on the day; the sun was shining brightly and it just didn’t register. I could relate more strongly with the black and white then I could with the sunlight. Part of my problems with depression include symptoms of Anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities. This was what I realised on looking at the photo.

Until I read ‘Off the Map’ I hadn’t really realised I had such a strong connection to that small strip of trees, which I’ll dub The Platform Trees. I maybe should have done because I have a print copy of the photo in my desk drawer to remind myself how far I’d come after seeking help, but now I have, I smile a little bit more each morning as I take my place on the platform to commute to work, as I understand my connection to this place even better.

You might not end up having as thought provoking an experience with the book as I did, but it will provoke your thought and make you re-think what you think you know about geography. Highly recommended to anyone interested in world-building for fiction and for anyone who likes a book to filter into all the nooks and crevies of your mind and prd at the thoughts lurking there.

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