Sunday, March 15, 2020

Armchair atlases

With the coronavirus preventing much physical travel, and armchair travel seeming an attractive alternative, also being sick of Netflix binging, as well as most of the planet now explored and photographed to death, it’s the perfect time to explore places that either don’t exist any more, have never existed, or are just so obscure you'll never visit them anyway.

Extinguished Countries is a new guidebook series about countries that no longer exist – a timely reminder, if we needed it, that nothing is permanent, though all civilisations feel they are invinsible. The first book of the series focuses on the Republic of Venice, which disappeared in 1797. The state once encompassed parts of Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece and Cyprus. The fascinating series contains everything from monuments, cities, famous figures, recipes, traditions and legends via craftsmen, historians and artists, and includes stories, timelines, infographics and maps.

The Unexpected Atlas series have books on Improbable Places (a 50p Barngain in 2018, keen readers will remember), focusing on the obscure and the bizarre; Atlas of Untamed Places looks at nature’s wildest places; Atlas of Vanishing Places explores places that no longer exist whilst Atlas of the Unexpected journeys to far-off lands, obscure discoveries and unimaginable locations.

Archipelago: An Atlas of Imagined Islands features an array of illustrators visualising their own remote islands. An Atlas of Imaginary Places is a fun children's books with bubble gum-sprewing volcanoes and islands in the shape of desserts.

Fictional places proliferate in film and literature, from Narnia and Middle-earth to the Land of Oz and Discworld. My favourite map in literature is probably the one in Treasure Island, with X marking the spot (for the very first time in a novel). Huw Lewis-Jones’ The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands is "an atlas of the journeys that writers make, encompassing not only the maps that actually appear in their books, but also the many maps that have inspired them and the sketches that they use in writing". Filled with beautiful illustrations of literary maps with essays by fine writers such as David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas) and Robert Macfarlane, it's a reminder that a map can do more than plot a route – it can feed the imagination.

The satirical Scarfolk Council is a brilliant and hilarious website of the fictional Scarfolk, "a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever."

Created entirely by graphic designer Richard Littler, the residents of the creepy, supernatural town are constantly under surveillance and force-fed warped public information posters and films, such as 'If you suspect your child has rabies, don't hesitate – shoot. It could save a life' (so convincing was this one it mistakenly appeared in a UK government magazine article about the history of UK government communications). In the words of the council: for more information please reread.

Though Norbiton is a place – it's near Kingston upon Thames and I've been there – describing the website dedicated to the nondescript area, Anatomy of Norbition, is difficult to do, so I'll instead pinch a quote from the website, provided by Robert Macfarlane, who calls it "A dazzlingly strange thought-experiment in virtual topography, counterfactual space, town-planning and tapirs..." Yeah, probably best just to visit it yourself.

Skidrisk – inspired by the road warning sign Skid Risk and, erm, Scarfolk – is my own imaginary town (which still lives entirely in my imagination), located somewhere in North Cornwall, where everyone loves car parks and cafes, and lives in the 1980s....

Previously on Barnflakes
Here's to you, Robinson

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