Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review: Unruly Places

Unruly Places
Alastair Bonnett

The subtitle gives you an idea of the intriguing contents ahead: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. Not only intriguing, but marvelous, pointed, surprising. I’ve read more in the nonfiction travel genre than in any other, so much so that I long ago found it hard to discover truly new areas of the globe. This book, which is more or less in the travel category, walloped me good. The most jaded geography-lover can find an abundance of very interesting material here. I don’t know how many of these 40-odd places Bonnett (an academic geographer) actually went to, but his library work has paid off in spades. If you think you know the world, this book is proof you don’t.

The section titles go further than the subtitle in organizing the stray threads, lone wolves and anomalies: “No Man’s Lands,” “Dead Cities,” “Enclosures and Breakaway Nations,” “Floating Islands,” and so on. It only took reading a few of these chapters, though, to realize that many subsections could easily be assigned to one or more alternate sections. These places are so unruly they can’t even abide Bonnett’s holding pens.

As for “Dead Cities,” who says you have to have an apocalypse to have a post-apocalyptic place? Wittenoom, an Australian desert ex-town, used to have one industry-asbestos mining. When they found out the real cost of the mineral, they cleared the town of people and made it forbidden property. Pripyat had the unfortunate distinction of sitting next to Chernobyl. It’s estimated it’ll be ready for humans again in about 900 years. The trees there are so badly mutated they don’t know how to grow toward the sun.

Familiar with the underground cities of Cappadocia, Turkey? The ones where the persecuted Christians lived centuries ago? People still live there now (and they did long before the Christians, too). They’ve always been good for those seeking safety. Now they’re just good, cheap housing. Over in Saudi Arabia, Old Mecca is about 95% gone. A tragedy, too, since that means that almost all of the Ottoman and Abbasid architecture is gone with it. The buildings raised too many questions about historical complexity that the current rulers of Mecca wanted to deal with. Manila treats its past differently. Overcrowding there has led to poor people living in a cemetery. This has been going on for years, in Manila and other crowded Third World cities. Some Filipinos object, some call it a sacrilege, but the families whose deceased relatives lie there generally like the arrangement, because the squatters take good care of the gravesites. It’s their way of “paying rent.” Not everybody rents, though. Foxes have moved into British cities in the last few decades. They’re so embedded now the Brits have given up trying to get rid of them. The humans have come around to the notion that it’s not that bad having foxes about. They’re in other cities around the world, too. Could they already be in Birmingham? It’s hard to know, as city foxes are nocturnal and spend almost all their time underground. If they are, can we learn from the Brits? Speaking of territory, according to international law, if your plane is registered in Norway (to take one country for example), even when you are in the air over the mid-Pacific, you’re still in Norway and you are bound by Norwegian law.

Through it all, Alastair Bonnett is almost always fair and dispassionate. I do, however, disagree with him when he objects to Mount Athos, the Greek peninsula made up of monasteries that are off limits to women, even to most female animals. He chastises it for its exclusionary policies, but fails to mention convented women who do the same and for that matter the whole point of religious seclusion, which is primarily about avoiding worldly distractions.

But I can complain little about a book with so many wonders, so many fun obscurities. There’s humor, too, such as an account of British doggers, who do more than just walk in secluded woods and “professional pirates” in Somalia who’ve gotten tired of the hassles of traditional piracy.

In a world that threatens to become homogenized, bland and orderly, it’s good to know that millions of people have decided to remain, or become, defiantly different, often in ways that do no harm to anyone. They might show us new ways of living, or even prospering. And the author’s provided Google Earth coordinates, where possible, so you can see a digital picture of the more fascinating reality it represents. That reality is engagingly described here, and I’m very grateful for it.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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