The guidebook: records of change

I’ve just read Geoff Dyer’s essay in Time Out’s Paris Walks. He starts by talking about Levi Strauss in Tristes Tropiques: Sao Paulo was changing so rapidly maps were out of date as soon as they were printed. It reminded me of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where roads and bridges close and appear every week.

I wrote this short article for The National about how these changes are recorded in guidebooks:

I had walked around the building three times. In the last hour I had ventured into a furniture store, office lobby, trade entrance and all other possible nooks. From the street, I took a last look around before sitting on a scalding slab and leafing through the guidebook again.

The second-hand bookshop was on the second floor of this building, the guidebook informed me.

Darkness was falling. People and cars were moving with purpose hither and thither. I closed the guidebook’s pristine pages and walked away.

For years I have travelled using old editions as my guide – by old I mean at least five years out of date. As Abu Dhabi is a nascent tourist destination, older editions for it are harder to find (and so are places to buy them).

Old guidebooks are cheaper and have often been annotated with useful comments from previous travellers: the “best pizza in Cambodia” etched beside a restaurant entry or “beware rats” scrawled in the margin next to a hotel. Just one year earlier I was travelling around the more remote regions of north-western Australia with a ten-year-old guidebook.

The Pilbara is a vast expanse of ancient rust red land, which, apart from huge mines dotted here and there, is beautiful and empty.

My guidebook had a long section about a town called Wittenoom, the closest town to the beautiful Karinjini gorges. Wittenoom was famous, or rather infamous, for asbestos mining. Many of its inhabitants had died from asbestosis. The death toll was made higher by tragic ignorance: they used deadly filings from the mines to grade the dirt roads, for example. But, according to my guidebook, this resilient town had clung on, eking out a livelihood from tourists visiting the gorges. It’s motto, printed on big yellow stickers, was “I went to Wittenoom and survived”.

By the time I arrived, one lonely inhabitant remained. No one had passed by in months.

Coincidentally, on the radio the next day, the town’s ruin became official: Wittenoom was being struck off the official register of settlements and would no longer appear on maps.

The latest edition of the guidebook contains only a few lines about the town. In its successor, Wittenoom will probably only exist in silence on the edge of the page.

The world is “already overstocked with books of travel” wrote Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels in 1726.

But in a city such as Abu Dhabi, where the pace of development is so brisk, where tower blocks are built and demolished side by side, where islands and beaches are reclaimed from the waves, the guidebook may be one of the only records of change. Snapshots of the city will survive in old editions after the places themselves have long since vanished.

Update 1

What I didn’t consider was how the digital world has enabled a new type of time travel. It has no distinct beginning, middle or end, yet we are able to slide back and forth in time with ease.

Take The London Museum app. Performs a kind of reverse archeology on this rich environment by placing new strata of digital history upon the contemporary view. Follow the app’s directions to various points around the city using either the map or GPS. When you arrive, the app overlays a semi-transparent photograph taken at that location from the Museum of London’s archive on the camera’s present-day view. The effect is primitive time travel.

Google Streetview is another such record of change.

These photographs were not intended to have an after, but the online medium has allowed us to create new narratives in real time.

We have not yet worked out ways to craft and frame narratives in this new atemporal world, but it’s an exciting new realm to explore.

Update 2

Jon Rafman’s project, The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, is a great example of this kind of thing. Bizarre images captured by the all-seeing eye. Artsy have a good page on Jon Rafman.