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Travel agents: guidebooks and atlases become a means of escape


At a time of lockdowns and the need for escapism, guidebooks and atlases can transport the reader to another place from the comfort of their own home

In the past weeks, my world, like everyone’s, has very quickly become significantly smaller. Travel is nigh on impossible. Borders are closed. People aren’t going anywhere. And while this is good for global climate catastrophe, it is not good for the many people who are suffering, worrying, grieving. Nothing I write is meant to make light of that or overlook it. In these unsettling times of cabin fever, self-isolation and potential claustrophobia, we all need a little escape, from rolling news, from living with your partner, family, or all of the above. We all need to find strategies to step back from the precipice of the timeline. There is still joy to be found. Allow me to present some means of getting away from it all when you can’t get anywhere: a guidebook to getting by. What follows are a few of my preferred escapes, to lift oneself out of the ordinary and pause for a moment or two.

‘We know that maps have agendas, pointed in what they do show as much as what they don’t’

Guidebooks to anywhere have long been an obsession of mine. I don’t much care where the guidebook is for, which may stem in no small part to my mum buying me a guide to Hong Kong when I was in fact going to India (it was on offer). Guidebooks offer a site to dip a toe into a given place, or at least a version of it. They portray a kind of Paris, or Rome, or Crawley, rather than the definitive understanding. I imagine filling in the gaps of these guides with other stories and mundane histories that might otherwise go overlooked. I want to unpick their hidden agendas, what they’re not saying as much as what they are, the position of the author, what their view might be and why. I want to understand the physical shape of places, from how the harbour connects to the main shopping street, to the formation of the local underground transit systems. 



Source: World Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

A tourist eagerly consults a guidebook on his trip to Kyoto in this drawing from Akizato Ritō’s Miyako meisho zue (an illustrated guide to the capital), 1786



Source: Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

A man turns his back to a view over the Bosphorus assessing alternative options

I’m constantly curious as to how they speak of the eras from which they were written, to be treated as historical source material in themselves: of Shell Guides to Britain and days out in the advent of the motor car; of rave culture, motorway services, and where to pick up flyers for free parties; of cross-Channel ferries and long-distance buses before Ryanair and EasyJet were a thing; even of poste restante and communication in a time before the internet. Guidebooks document places, points of view, and ways of doing things that we begin to forget. What’s important is that you can pick a book up off your shelf and be taken in your imagination to somewhere, and sometime, else. Hypothetical holidays as a form of meditation. 

Atlases give me life in the same way that guidebooks do. We know that maps have agendas, pointed in what they do show as much as what they don’t. At their worst they are forms of control that erase histories, peoples and places. At their best they offer a different perspective on the world and how I/we/you fit into it. I have one on my shelf by Judith Schalansky, her Atlas of Remote Islands. Schalansky, who grew up behind the Wall in East Berlin during the 1980s, would learn about the world through her parents’ atlas, travelling to far-off lands and imagining what they were like as she was unable or unlikely to ever visit. She imagines lonely places across the world and tells their overlooked stories. I did the same throughout the 1980s, on the other side of the wall in suburban Birmingham. It all began with an atlas my grandma got me from the back of a Weetabix packet. I memorised every capital city in the gazetteer at the back of the atlas – Pyongyang, Dushanbe, Gaborone – to the point where my newly found knowledge was tested by strangers in village pubs across Wales and Ireland. It sparked an interest and imagination of what life might be like somewhere else; to what over here looks like from over there, and vice versa.

Ptolemy world map tourism architectural review

Ptolemy world map tourism architectural review

Source: The British Library

This partial map of the northern hemisphere was made in the 15th century, reconstituted from Ptolemy’s Geography, c150. Below the Indian Ocean, thought to be a great inland sea, is marked ignota terra: it was fancied that the land curved round from Prasum (Cape Delgado, Mozambique), the furthest reach of Africa known to Roman geographers, to meet Asia at Cattigara, a port in the Gulf of Thailand

Sticking with maps, but taking stock of the digital turn, Google Maps have changed the world at a rate and in a way that many maps could never dream of. For many, Google Maps are the world. If you’re not on it then do you exist? The way we design and represent the world around us – at scales from nation states to buildings – affects us all and is intensely political. Perhaps it’s more a question of awareness: if historically ‘here be monsters’ noted spaces off the map, should the question ‘who be monsters’ be asked of those that draw the map? 

When you’ve been drawn into a given destination, be that via a guidebook, atlas, whatever, the next level of this diversion is to go for a walk on Street View. I tend to frequent various locations in the west of Ireland or other remote corners of the world, but you take your pick. It might be somewhere you’ve been already, the road you grew up on, the site of a formative experience, it might be somewhere you’ve never even heard of picked at random. But given the fact that all-knowing all-seeing Google now covers or owns most of the planet, much of it is available as a digital right-to-roam that instantly lifts you away from your daily life.



Source: Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty

Dated at c1600BC, the Nebra sky disk features the earliest concrete depiction of the cosmos yet known

Wikipedia pages of airports also give me some comfort, and have done for some time. Perhaps it’s the anodyne data sets of where you can fly from and to. Maybe the hierarchies of power and global trade through airline routes and hub airports. Or even just where smaller airports ‘look to’ as part of national, international and intercontinental transport networks. I return to them again and again, curious as to how they work as physical spaces, and more importantly how you and I and the messy reality of our lives have arrived and departed through their ordered systems. 

Bouncing between the utilitarian and the human I think of artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss and their book 800 Views of Airports. The book presents photographs of airports around the world without any text to determine date, location or anything else. Everything is presented deadpan without information or emotion, showing rather than telling. As the viewer you are left with boredom, hope and the (old-fashioned) aspiration of air travel; with airports acting as signifiers for the sameness of places, of the global nature of late capitalism, and of generic space and time. This sameness sits apart from the reality, or at least a reality, of the guidebook. They do opposite jobs, operating at opposite scales. 



Source: Ursula K Le Guin Literary Trust

Many fictions pour forth from imagined geographies: Ursula K Le Guin’s drawings of Gethen from The Left Hand of Darkness evoke worlds that are entirely other

This sense of differing scales, of how one as an individual fits into the world, of the local in relation to the global (not least the nature of the current issues we’re facing) is what links all of the above, and somehow leads me right back to my kitchen table. The ‘non-place’-ness of airports sits at odds with the place-ness of our everyday lives. I take a walk outside my house and consider the gaze of the guidebook writer, the cartographer, the Google Mapper. What would they make of where I live? How might Georges Perec ‘exhaust’ my place? For a guide to my street there are several things that stand out: the house with a blackboard outside that has a daily inspirational quote; the terrifying pub that is a bastion of old south London; the square outside the train station with skateboarders and Jehovah’s Witnesses come rain or shine; even the part of the road that floods every time it rains, the pavement wearing out in a certain route as people avoid the water. 

These things you only know from being somewhere, from spending time. In some form perhaps we’re writing and rewriting our own guidebooks and maps to all our places, near and far, real and imagined, all the time. It’s easy to forget in the kerfuffle that there is value in understanding where you live as much as these other places, and as my mum always says, ‘It’s nice to go on holiday, but it’s nice to come home’. 

Lead image: Produced by various national and regional tourist boards and information and media ministries, these photo books and guides present idealised visions of their countries, whether capitalising on picturesque landscapes, embedding themselves in folk art vernacular or touting recent industrial prowess

This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today