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Of topophilia, topophobia and topotechnophobia

Some nice and beautiful places can also be dangerous and scary due to the sinister technology-related objects they contain

Since several months ago, when I was – rather unexpectedly for myself – appointed Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society,  I’ve been receiving one of the Society’s periodicals, The Geographical Journal, as part of my subscription. One of its latest issues contained the 2018 Presidential Address by the Society’s then President (and an old acquaintance of mine): travel writer and explorer Nicholas Crane. In one of my previous Views from Vitalia, I described how the two of us – both experienced and hardened travellers - once got shamefully and nearly irretrievably lost in the outskirts of a small village in Devon.

In Nicholas’s comprehensive and nicely written address, I came across a previously unknown word: ‘topophilia’. Here’s a quote:

“Rock art can be seen as an expression of ‘topophilia’, the term provided in 1974 by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan as he constructed his framework for discussing the various ways in which we develop ‘a love of a place’… ‘Geography’, he concluded, ‘provides the content of topophilic sentiment’. Deep down, we are all topophiliacs.”

According to other sources, the word ‘topophilia’ – a strong sense, or indeed love, of a place – was first coined by John Betjeman and then repeated by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his book “The Poetics of Space”.

No matter who invented the term, Nicholas Crane was right in asserting – to echo Vladimir Mayakovsky’s famous “We are all horses to an extent” -  that we are all topohiliacs deep down. 

I would even characterise myself as a serial topophiliac, for I tend to fall in love with places often and with ease. That is probably why I often find myself at a loss when confronted with that sacramental question: “What is your favourite place in the world?”  I seriously do not know the answer.

Accepting the existence of that peculiar term “topophilia”, we should, however, be ready to accept its antonym, ‘topophobia’, defined by the Free Online Dictionary as “the fear of certain places or situations”.

Situations aside, I have not been to many places which I could call outright scary, excluding perhaps a couple of godforsaken provincial towns in Russia and an extremely rough and dodgy area of Philadelphia where I once ended up by mistake while looking for the house in which Edgar Allan Poe used to live (chronically infirm and constantly hard-up, Poe always preferred poor and rough areas to the gentrified ones).

Having said that, I could certainly name the places which I found scary, from a purely technological point of view, no matter how beautiful and interesting they were.

Time now for drums and fanfares, for I am about to coin an entirely new word, which has never been used in print before (I have checked!) – “topotechnophobia” – or, according to the definition I have just invented, “the fear of places made scary by the technological features, objects or sites they contain.” How is that for a new Oxford Dictionary entry?

Of such places, I can immediately name at least five (and those exclude a couple of war zones and several Soviet labour camps, which I visited as a journalist). Here they are, accompanied with short and highly personal descriptions.

Chernobyl, Ukraine

Probably the world’s scariest place and not just for the inveterate topotechnophobe like myself, for we (I and my small Channel 4 film crew of two) were unable to obtain cover for that particular day of the shoot from any UK insurance broker during our visit there in summer of 1994.

At the entrance to the 10km ‘interior’ (heavily contaminated) zone, we were offered sets of baggy “protective” clothing, which were merely used battle fatigues. We were given face masks to protect our lungs.

Our guide cheerfully informed us that, within the exclusion zone, the level of radiation was thousands of times higher than the accepted safe maximum. We exchanged black jokes and nervous cackles, made even more uneasy by the knowledge that there had been an even bigger radioactive leak the day before our visit.

Chernobyl, we were given to understand, leaked all the time, yet Sasha, a young local dosimetrist (a specialist in radiation oncology) assigned to our film crew, was not wearing a mask - in a gesture of youthful bravado. With our every step towards the leaking reactor, his bulky antediluvian Geiger counter showed great jumps in the levels of background radiation. I couldn’t tear my eyes from the faded slogan crowning the building next to it: '“Communism Will Win!” Several times they had tried to paint that tragically ironic slogan over, but the stubborn white letters were still clearly visible through layers of paint.

The town of Pripyat, Ukraine

The nearest town to Chernobyl, Pripyat, which used to house 50,000 people in 1986, was dead and empty. It was evacuated in one day, 36 hours after the explosion at reactor number 4, though for most evacuees it was already too late.

The town was eerie. The motor of our camera whirred in utter silence. Flowerbeds had vanished beneath thick,  eight-year-old vegetation.

In the town funfair, nestling between abandoned high-rise apartment blocks, the wind slowly propelled a rusty merry-go-round. Here was an overturned go-kart; there a broken LP with 1986 Soviet musical hits trampled in the ground.

Walking around this dead town one could almost feel the radiation lingering in the still, jelly-like air.

Silence and death. It was like trudging through the ruins of my own childhood, and I was not particularly surprised to find out several years later that "Chernobyl Diaries", a Hollywood horror movie, was filmed on location in Pripyat.

Dounreay, Scotland

“It is only by good fortune that we didn’t have an accident like Chernobyl in Dounreay,” Lorraine M., Scotland’s leading anti-nuclear campaigner, told me before my visit to Dounreay and the nearby Thurso on the north coast of Caithness in 2003. I knew, of course, that the types of reactors in Dounreay and Chernobyl are of course very different, the former being many times safer.

Approaching UKAEA (UK Atomic Energy Authority) Dounreay by car, I could see in the distance the golf-ball-shaped DFR (Dounreay Fast Reactor, also known as the Dome), constructed between 1955 and 1958 and closed down in 1977. I was told that the ‘golf ball’ would be the only structure left standing on the site after the end of decommissioning (about another 50 years - and £4bn – away from the time of my visit). Historic Scotland was thinking of making it a listed building.

A computer-generated image of the fully decommissioned site, which I saw at the visitor centre, showed a giant one-hole ‘golf course’, with the white Dome (golf ball) in the middle of an empty field.

We arrived at the check-point, where I was given a chance to flash my then-new British passport. A policeman was called to inspect my shoulder bag. “Security state of vigilance Black Special” ran a sign at the site entrance. My escort assured me that, despite the sinister wording, it implied a pretty low level of security.

The barbed-wire fence around the site’s perimeter was lined with heavy boulders (“to prevent trucks from crashing through”). From within, the plant resembled a huge construction site - ironic, if we remembered that in reality it was the spot of Scotland’s biggest ever deconstruction. “What you see is in fact a large chemical works, complicated by radioactivity,” said my escort.

A local landowner, with whom I spoke, would probably wish the station had never come to Dounreay in the first place. The golden beaches of Sandside Bay near the village of Reay were part of his 11,000-acre estate. They were also the places where radioactive particles have been found consistently since 1984.  He told me that his two dogs, who liked to run on the sand, “died of tumours”. The beach was indeed monitored for 12 days a month, but what was needed was not occasional scanning, but a thorough and consistent cleaning. The farmer was seeking a court order to urge UKAEA to - literally - clean up its act.

Issues and controversies, mixed with radioactive particles, were piled up high on that pristine-looking beach, where the owners did not walk their dogs any longer.

With Chernobyl impressions still fresh in my memory, it all looked very scary to me.

Zagorsk, Russia

The origins of my inherent topotechnophobia  can probably be traced back to the first three years of my life which I had to spend in another extremely scary place - one of the “secret cities” in the town of Zagorsk near Moscow, to where my parents, young scientists (Mum – a chemical engineer, Dad – a nuclear physicist) and the newly-married graduates of Kharkov University, were dispatched in the early 1950s to work at a top-secret Soviet government facility, developing nuclear and hydrogen bombs. The settlement of 40,000 people (it was referred to as “Military Unit BA/48764”, or something similar), separated from the rest of Zagorsk by tall concrete fence with barbed wire on top, did not feature on any official Soviet maps.

Needless to say that I do not remember much from those distant years: I was too young. But strangely, I can still conjure up some vague impressions in my memory. I remember the chiming of church bells (Zagorsk was the centre of  Russia’s Orthodox Church – then heavily corrupted and  KGB-controlled), black-robed priests, holy water springs in which the area abounded, and brand-new portraits of Stalin (who died one year before I was born), displayed in the windows of log-cabins next to faded icons of Holy Mary.  We lived in a so-called “communal flat” having to share bathroom and kitchen with several other families. One of our neighbours – an engineer who worked at my parents’ laboratory, used to keep his motorbike in the corridor (our apartment was on the fifth floor of a standard block of flats, and there was no lift, so the motorbike owner had to drag his vehicle up the stairs every evening). That mechanical monster once fell on top of me as I was playing in the communal corridor. My screams must have been heard all over the secret town.

Because my parents were at work all day, they had to hire a child-minder to look after me. She was an ancient woman (“babushka”) in a kerchief and looked very much like Baba Yaga – a long-nosed witch from Russian folk tales who lives in a hut on chicken’s legs and eats children for supper. Once, coming home from the laboratory, my parents saw the Baba Yaga with me in a bundle standing near the church and asking for alms to feed “the poor little orphan” that was me. It was the “orphan” bit of her whining mantra that must have offended my parents more than anything else (I don’t blame them) and the begging Baba Yaga was sacked the same day.

Due to the proximity of the factory, the background radiation levels everywhere in the town, including schools and children's playgrounds, were extremely high, and inside the factory they were such that, as my mother told me, the skin was routinely peeling off hers and her colleagues' hands.  

The Falkland Islands

It is highly ironic that one of my most favourite places in the world is simultaneously one of the scariest I ever visited. The continuous danger stems from the countless minefields, with 26,000 still unexploded Argentinian-made land-mines – the sad relics of the 1982 military conflict. Deactivating them would be much too costly for the modest islands’ budget. The minefields, clearly marked with ‘Danger: Mines’ and ‘Slow: Minefield’ signs (the best souvenirs one can bring back from the Falklands, by the way, but do not try to nick them from the minefields, please) lay on both sides of the road to Stanley, the Islands’ tiny capital of 2,200 people. According to the local regulations, venturing onto a minefield – by accident or deliberately (it is hard to imagine who would want to do so) – was an offence punishable by a £1,000 fine. I thought that to collect this fine, they would have to collect and put back together all 1,000 pieces of the trespasser first.

In all the years since the conflict, the locals have learnt to live with the mines. On the island of West Falkland, I saw a golf course next to a minefield and one of the houses in Stanley was adorned with a mock skull-and-crossbones sign: ‘Danger: Karl’.

The only creatures who are exempt from the above trespassing regulations were the sheep (of which there are now exactly 85,458 on the islands)  who were allowed and even encouraged (due to the plentiful layer of grass covering the mines) to wander through the minefields freely. I was told that the weight of an average sheep is not enough to activate the mine, unlike that of an average human, albeit, in all fairness, I would be reluctant to experiment.

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