The world's glummest anti-travel guide

by David Hill / 14 February, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Damian Rudd Sad Topographies

Deception Island, Antarctica. Photo/Getty Images

Damien Rudd's Sad Topographies pulls together the saddest map entries from around the globe.

One of the most satisfying travel books I’ve read was Mark Lawson’s The Battle for Room Service. It subverted the whole chest-beating genre of Everest-in-Running-Shorts, Kalahari-on-Mobility-Scooter by visiting the world’s safest, dullest places. Milton Keynes featured. So – ahem – did Timaru.

There’s a similar idiosyncrasy here, as ex-Aussie Damien Rudd goes after the world’s glummest map entries and the origins, histories, resonances of their labels. Meet toponymy, the study of place names.

Our author goes after them vicariously only. “I have not been to, nor is it likely I will visit, any of the places in this book.” Sad Topographies is an anti-travel guide, you see.

We start with Deception Island in Antarctica and the “blood-tainted stench of death” from sealing and whaling. We end 23 melancholy names and three interpolated essays later at Death, a Finnish village of 10 houses and adjacent Famine Hill, which led Rudd to muse neatly on local burial customs. You have to like the contents list, none of which I am making up. Sorrow Islands, World’s End, Cape Grim, Misery, Suicide Forest, Doom Town, Darkness Lake. You’ll find them in British Columbia, London, Tasmania, Germany, Japan, Nevada and Ontario respectively. New Zealand makes it, via Disappointment Island: “an infinitesimal [it ain’t] mound of brittle wind-swept rock”, site of the Dundonald castaways and their anti-climactic – not Rudd’s fault – endurance.

Places and names start some piquant associations. Eighteenth-century gents’ millinery links with Massacre Island in Ontario and a mass decapitation. Gas stations evoke Edward Hopper and a road trip where dereliction rules. Smiling mannequins feature in Doom Town, Nevada. You’ve seen this one, houses and dummies caught frame by frame on film as a 1955 nuclear test blew them apart.

Appositeness and irony are appreciated. Lonelyville (New York) is. Utopia (Ohio) isn’t. Rudd has two good eyes for the quirky: the Hungarian architect who lost his name to James Bond; Maryland’s mouse cities and their murine cannibals; the days when six moons will orbit Earth; tips for successful seppuku; Durham’s No Place, “nondescript, tenuous … lacklustre”.

The writing is attentive, earnest, inclined to swell into portentousness: “only the name remains, echoing a time immemorial”; “neon lights like the flowers of noxious weeds that grow among the ruins of urban decay”. Is there an editor in the house? I’ll get picky and note that “minuscule” is spelt wrongly and “substituted” used incorrectly. Not good in a text that aims for significance.

It’s not the most visually engaging of publications – packed print, bizarrely wide margins, eye-testing white on green. But do pay attention to illustrator Kateryna Didyk’s shades of grey and sepia. Her singular blends of map and satellite image are rewarding slow yielders.

A respectful and painstaking, honest and sometimes unsettling book. Also, you may feel, a marginally self-satisfied one. “Post-colonial melancholy” gets a whacking. Things past, present and probably future are mostly bleak, black, dour, depressing.

SAD TOPOGRAPHIES, by Damien Rudd (Simon & Schuster, $52.99)

This article was first published in the January 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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