The above quotation, of course, is from the Borges story “The Library of Babel,” which famously imagines an infinite library containing every book that has ever been or ever could be written. It must, I suppose, therefore contain atlases and books of maps, though presumably not maps printed as single sheets.
How did Borges feel about maps? Well, he did publish a book titled Atlas, a kind of travel book, first published in 1984 in Spanish, translated into English a year later, and written “in collaboration with María Kodama,” his second wife. It consists of 40 or so short pieces, mostly prose, though a few are poetry, describing places he’s visited around the world, along with some of the people he’s met on his travels. The titles include “The Temple of Poseidon,” “Robert Graves at Deya,” “The Desert,” and (perhaps inevitably) “The Labyrinth.”
There are photographs in the book, but no maps, and in the prologue Borges writes, “Each and every man is a discoverer. He begins by discovering bitterness, saltiness, concavity, smoothness, harshness, the seven colors of the rainbow and the twenty-some letters of the alphabet; he goes on to visages, maps, animals and stars.” That strikes me as a curious order for discovering things. I’d have thought maps came well after animals and stars, though only a fool would argue with Borges.
There’s also a piece in the book titled “Iceland” in which he writes, “I was, as always, in the middle of that clear haze visible to the eyes of the blind.” And if there seems to be something richly, perversely symbolic in the notion of a blind librarian, a blind cartographer raises the symbolic stakes even higher. Not that unimpaired vision is any guarantee of knowing where you are.
I was walking through East Ham in London, heading for Itchycoo Park with my fellow scribe, flâneur, and chronicler of the engagingly retro and off-kilter: Travis Elborough. You might think he was a good man to have on such an expedition, being the author last year of A Walk in the Park: The Life and Times of a People’s Institution and now Atlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners, 51 short essays on the globe’s more wayward places, with maps by Alan Horsfield. Even so, we were lost.
I’d printed off a map from Google, and Elborough had his cell phone, but we kept going astray. We were never completely and utterly lost, but much of the time we weren’t quite sure where we were or where we should be. We knew where we wanted to go but, map or no map, we couldn’t always see how to get there. Consequently, we found ourselves in various dead ends, and made a series of detours that took us through terra incognita, along streets with names such as Ruskin Avenue and Byron Avenue, and eventually around Shakespeare Crescent.
We told ourselves this meandering was all part of the psychogeographic process, and I don’t think we were entirely deceiving ourselves. In due course we did arrive at the entrance to the park. There was a large, potentially helpful map, but the plastic that covered it had become opaque, hazy, and impossible to see through. Borges might have understood.
Itchycoo Park is simultaneously a real, an imaginary, and a contested place; there should perhaps be quotation marks around all those adjectives. Primarily, it’s the title and subject of a great 1967 psychedelic pop song by the Small Faces that has the distinction of being the first song ever to be banned by the BBC because it contained drug references.
What did you do there? — I got high
What did you feel there? — Well I cried
But why the tears there? — I’ll tell you why —
It’s all too beautiful, It’s all too beautiful
It’s all too beautiful, It’s all too beautiful
And later in the song Steve Marriott sings, “I feel inclined to blow my mind.”
The ban therefore doesn’t seem all that surprising, although the band’s previous single, “Here Come the Nice,” which seems to be entirely about drug dealing and amphetamines, was broadcast to the youth of Britain without demur.
In order to get the ban on “Itchycoo Park” lifted, the band’s management claimed it wasn’t a song about drugs at all, but about a patch of land where the band members had played as kids: as if these things were mutually exclusive. But that was enough to get the ban lifted, thereby suggesting that BBC decision-makers were even more hopelessly out of touch than previously imagined.
A number of after-the-fact origin narratives have placed Itchycoo Park in various locations around London, and the itchiness has been attributed to wasps, nettles, or rose hips — the last of these especially itchy if dropped inside somebody’s shirt collar. Elborough and I were visiting Little Ilford Park, one of the prime geographical suspects: the Guardian’s “London Calling: a musical map of the city” unhesitatingly says that this is the place. It’s a long, thin finger of greenery tucked in beside the North Circular Road, a place with a designerish new adventure playground, a lot of flat open land that looked like it had once been playing fields, a shuttered sports pavilion, a rose garden, and a public toilet that was functional (but with smashed windows).
What did we do there? Well we didn’t get high, nor did we find it all too beautiful. Rather, we talked about maps and territories, nostalgia and modernity: which is to say we discussed Elborough’s new book.
This Atlas of Improbable Places joins a small but growing number of what we might call alternative or perhaps “indie” travel guides, maybe anti-travel guides, postmodern Baedekers for those wearied by (or too hip for) the conventional itineraries. The genre includes Unruly Spaces (2004) by Alastair Bonnett, subtitled “Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies” and Tom Lutz’s And the Monkey Learned Nothing and Drinking Mare's Milk on the Roof of the World, both published this year, subtitled “Dispatches from a Life in Transit” and “Wandering the Globe from Azerbaijan to Zanzibar.” (Full disclosure: Lutz, as you may well know, is the editor of LARB, and also, as you may well not know, the editor of this piece [I have no idea what he is getting at here, Ed.]). There’s also the recent Atlas Obscura (2016), “An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders” — yes, a lot of subtitling seems to be required in these matters.
All these books display a fascination with ambiguous or edgy or potentially dangerous places: ruins (industrial rather than classical), deranged architectural follies, environments created by outsider artists, underground or utopian or lost cities, abandoned prisons, bunkers, theme parks, relics of the Space Age and the Cold War; examples of all these appear in Elborough’s book.
He writes about some places that will be familiar to Angelenos, such as Slab City and the Hearst Castle, but he ventures much further afield to the Aral Sea tucked between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which has dried up to become the Aralkum Desert, to Wittenoom, a town in Western Australia caked in blue asbestos, that was closed down and removed from official maps, though it’s easy enough to find on Google. I was especially taken with his account of the “illicit tunnels” of Moose Jaw, Canada, which manages to join the dots between Walter Benjamin, Chinese immigrant laborers turned bootleggers, and J. G. Ballard.
Inevitably, there’s some overlap in these alt-tourist volumes, though less than you might think. The Atlas Obscura, being partly crowd-sourced online, contains by far the greatest number of sites, and Elborough admits that it came as a shock, and maybe a threat, when he went into a store looking for his own book and found that volume instead; thick, lavishly illustrated with photographic images, full of bells and whistles, sidebars, directions, details, opening times, and whatnot. It’s a good book. You can understand his anxiety, but I’m sure there’s a readership for both. Elborough’s is by far the more serious, literary, and essayistic, and also the one with the better maps.
This urge to travel to ever more outlying and freakish destinations is not hard to fathom. We’ve read Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995), so we’re familiar with the idea that the world has become a series of homogenized, globalized, interchangeable spaces. However, as Elborough says in his introduction,
claims about the growing, soul-crushing similarity of places can be overstated […] Thankfully, the world continues to be a dizzyingly diverse place. Our appetite for the unusual and the out of the ordinary has, if anything, only been heightened by new technology, the scanning and sharing of fresh information and imagery themselves a spur to further travel and post-industrialization changing the kinds of places we find intriguing, beautiful or worthy of cursory investigation.
Of course this kind of cataloging involves exclusion as well as selection, creating a new canon, and possibly just a new tourist traps. I asked Elborough if he thought we were heading for some kind of subversive Grand Tour, whereby travelers no longer visit the Uffizi but instead go to look at, say, the ruins of the Teufelsberg spy station in Berlin? And ultimately how subversive is that likely to be anyway?
“Well,” he said, “Grand Tourers were definitely fond of a ruin, hence the presence of Venice and Rome on their itineraries, but I too wonder about just how subversive it might be. It seems to me that just as the Romantics forged a new aesthetic of beauty in the wake of industrialization, we have worked out our own criteria of interest to meet the needs of a post-industrial, digital society.”
“Addison, when formulating the original idea of the sublime, wrote about the ‘agreeable horror’ of oceans — a description that could equally work for Battleship Island.” (That’s the deserted mining settlement crammed with high rise buildings, off the coast of Japan, seen at its best in the movie Skyfall.)
Elborough continued, “I do wonder sometimes if it might not be time to take a fresh look at, I don’t know, the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Eiffel Tower, the absolutely ridiculously over-familiar, just as an exercise. Even I find myself dozing off when I hear the phrases ‘liminal’ or ‘edge lands’ these days … I am often left wondering about the ‘dead centers’ of cities, the bits that only tourists and increasingly only the very wealthy (and their poorly paid minions) really spend any time in.”
By now, we’d done a circuit of Little Ilford Park and the place was filling up with people. A lot of children had arrived with their teachers and were playing games. We speculated that they were doing this in a public park because so many British school playing fields had been sold off to property developers. We also noted that large areas of the park had been left to run wild, to let wild flora and fauna have their way, a convenient if dubious conflation of conservationist and cost-cutting interests. No doubt there were nettles, and very possibly wasps and rose hips in the tall grass, but we managed not to get stung.
We were also there to discuss an event that he and I were doing a couple of days later, organized by Elborough, at a place in London called the Horse Hospital, advertised as “an evening of spoken word, discussion, music, performance and short films about urban spaces, London and Los Angeles, sex and food, memory and maps.” It was called with a certain inevitability — “The Map is Not the Territory.”
That had me thinking of Borges again, specifically his one-paragraph story “On Exactitude in Science,” the one in which “the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it,” which of course is a variation on an idea found in Lewis Carroll’s “Sylvie and Bruno Concluded.”
“‘It has never been spread out, yet,’ said Mein Herr: ‘the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.’” Here, of course the territory is the map.
And the fact is I’ve always had some trouble with this notion that the map is not the territory. I don’t doubt that it’s true, but does it really need saying? Is there anybody in their right mind who would think otherwise?
Well, I discover belatedly that the phrase was first used by Alfred Korzybski, a Polish-American “independent scholar” who more or less invented a field of studies called general semantics, which doesn’t have much to do with our usual understanding of semantics, and has overtones of self-help and behavioral therapy. His point, hardly a revolutionary one, is that the human perception of reality is not the same as reality itself. The brain is an intermediary, a translator, a cartographer. But that doesn’t make our perceptions irrelevant or redundant. Korzybski writes in Science and Sanity (1933): “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” I’m a little troubled by the notion of “correctness” in a map since it seems to me that all maps involve falsification to a greater or lesser degree, but it’s good to know that the phrase is a metaphor, not just a statement of the blindingly obvious.
Well, the event went perfectly well. We talked about many things regarding London and Los Angeles, not least the London A to Z, generally a small paperback designed to be carried in the pocket while walking, as opposed to the Thomas Guide obviously designed to be used in a car. I bought a Thomas Guide the day I moved to Los Angeles over a decade ago, and have used it maybe three times. Nevertheless it sits in the back of the car, like a talisman or a security blanket, not that it makes me feel especially secure.
Here’s Beryl Markham writing in West With The Night (1942), a book about her travels in what was then British East Africa, now Kenya. “A map says to you, ‘Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not.’ It says, ‘I am the earth in the palm of your hand. Without me, you are alone and lost.’”
Well, I wish I had her confidence. Some of us often feel especially alone and lost when we’ve got a map in the palm of our hand. It ought to tell us where we are and how to get to where we want to go, but sometimes it just doesn’t, and that can feel worse than having no map at all. When I was in Tokyo earlier this year, I always carried, and frequently consulted, a printed map, sometimes more than one. Mostly I felt as though I was carrying a superfluous and meaningless piece of paper. Sometimes, admittedly, I also consulted a superfluous and meaningless image on a cell phone screen. It rarely helped.
It was some consolation that I saw many locals who seemed to be as lost as I was. They stared at the large public maps found on many Tokyo street corners, with just as much confusion as I did. Sometimes they even photographed these maps with their cell phones, so they could carry them away with them. Not that I imagine it did much good.
Recently there has been further consolation from reading a section in Lutz’s And the Monkey Learned Nothing describing his own experiences in Japan. Lutz is indeed a man of the library, in fact a man with an urge to visit every country on Earth, and (just as important) write about them. Here he writes,
People who saw me looking at my map came up to help. As far as I could tell, none of them knew how to read a map. They studied mine, sometimes turning it over or sideways, never able to say where we were. But they went through the motions of being helpful very cheerfully, finally made a guess, and bowing, invariably pointed in the wrong direction.
There is quite a skill, it seems to me, whether you have a map or not, whether you know how to read it or not, in remaining cheerful even when you’re completely lost, and that may be the best way to end up in some improbable places.
Geoff Nicholson is a novelist and nonfiction writer and a contributing editor at LARB.