Book review: ‘Beyond the Map’ by Alastair Bonnett

An engrossing look at geographical eccentricities that will be revealing for even seasoned armchair travellers.

‘Beyond the Map: Unruly Enclaves, Ghostly Places, Emerging Lands and Our Search for New Utopias’ (Aurum Press, £16.99; ISBN 978 1 78131 638 2) can be safely regarded as a sequel to Alastair Bonnett’s earlier book, ‘Off the Map. Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places’. Coincidentally, I received the latter as a Christmas gift from my wife exactly three years ago, in 2014. Aurum Press’s decision to release these revealing and entertaining titles in the run-up to Christmas is an astutue one. It’s a time of year when people are keener than ever to read about things and places curious and unusual. Indeed, many of the stories in this book resemble a Yuletide tale come to life, so bizarre and incredible do they appear.

To be honest, I am somewhat envious of Bonnett, for unusual places and geopolitical curiosities have always been in my sphere of interest too. In my nearly 30 years as a British writer I’ve written and published books on European enclaves, borders and mini-states and have written countless features on other peculiar bits of the world geography.

As a professor of social geography at Newcastle University, Bonnet certainly knows what he is talking about, although I was confused by a somewhat haphazard choice and classification of unusual places in both ‘Off the Map’ and ‘Beyond the Map’. For example, both Leningrad, the city that was simply renamed but is still pretty much in existence as St Petersburg, and Old Mecca, which was destroyed, feature in the same ‘Lost Spaces’ section (‘Off the Map’), whereas the short-lived and now defunct New Russia, or Novorossiya, which was always more of an emotional statement than a geopolitical reality, comes next to the Bondi Beach Eruv – an artificial and temporary Jewish enclave where the strict rules of the Sabbath do not apply in ‘Enclaves and Uncertain Nations’ (‘Beyond the Map’).

Despite these small discrepancies, ‘Beyond the Map’ is an engrossing read that proves revealing even for those who take genuine interest in the never-ending eccentricities of our world. “Geography is getting stranger: new islands are rising up, familiar territories are splintering and secret realms are cracking open their doors. The world’s unruly zones are multiplying and changing fast,” writes Bonnett in the introduction. Indeed, everything around us, including borders and landscapes, is in flux, and reading about the reshaped Spratly Islands or the newly formed islets of the Arctic is eye-opening. Closer to home, having lived for a number of years in Edinburgh, I had no idea that a relatively modest flat at 18 Royston Mains Street in that city at some point until recently concealed one eighth of the national wealth of Moldova, then one of Europe’s poorest countries, hidden there by a fraudulent tax-avoiding Moldovan business tycoon, who camouflaged his small treasury as a business using lenient Scottish corporate laws.

In short, the book never fails to surprise and can therefore work very well as a surprise Christmas gift!

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