As travel irrevocably becomes more beastly, so the literature of imaginary and forgotten places steadily enlarges. Two of my favourite books of recent years have described and catalogued real territories, present and past, whose existence trembles on the incredible. The first is Norman Davies's Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-forgotten Europe. The second is Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands. In each, the frontier between fact and fantasy is disturbed.
Davies tells us about mysterious places such as Alt Clud, Tolosa and Litva … all once as much a part of Europe as Brussels and Milton Keynes are today. Meanwhile, Schalansky has mapped and described Southern Thule, Floreana and Annobón, islands she has never visited. This omission does not stop the book having a compulsive, voyeuristic quality which is deeply pleasurable.
History and geography have their mysteries, but so too does literature. Ruritania and Narnia, of course. But who is to say that they are less real than Professor Davies's disappeared countries?
Then there is our singular, or perhaps shared, dreamscape. Carl Gustav Jung had elaborate dreams about Liverpool, a city which, not surprisingly, he had never actually visited. Of course, Jung would be better placed than me to explain the sources of his nocturnal Merseyside fantasy.
I often wonder what our dream-time destinations tell us about our beliefs, preoccupations and fears. Quite a lot, I imagine, which is why I am so interested in my own. I have a recurrent dream, always experienced in great detail, about a place where I have also never been. At least, not in this life.
Significantly, it is an island (I like comprehensible territory). It's always daylight and the weather is good. There are not many people about, other than some scowling generic Welshmen or Mediterraneans. It's low-tide. My location is always the same: just outside of town (which I suspect is a place very revealing of a psychological state). There is a cheerful café-pub-trattoria-bodega-taverna (again, perhaps I am an edge-of-frame type). This I never quite see nor access and I tend to leave the island by a form of transport about which my dream is not specific. Always, there is a residual sense of yearning for something lost, or a sense of disappointment about something not fully realised. Says it all, really.
There's a new science, although some would say pseudo-science, called epigenetics. This concerns how we know things which we have not obviously learnt, the assumption being that our DNA carries memories of languages and places. This is why people sometimes take a knock to the head and wake-up speaking Frisian. If I am analytical, my dream island is probably a conflation of Moelfre in Anglesey, where I spent some enjoyable childhood holidays, and Skopelos in the northern Aegean where I am often found nowadays. So maybe Jung's Liverpool was an epigenetic episode as well. Perhaps an ancestor of C S Lewis actually lived in Narnia.
If we could summon-up epigenetic data at will, a great deal of travel would become redundant. Why? Because, like sex, the best travel really happens in the head. But don't worry, dream on. It's not going to happen.Reuse content