All posts in Comment

  • The Geographers

    They move freely among you; but, there is no cause for alarm. They are, generally, a pleasant, inquisitive and benign bunch. Despite your conceptions, almost prejudices, they are not what you think. Lima, Ulan Bator and Ottawa are not a chief concern of theirs (well not for the reasons you think), neither necessarily are interlocking spurs and V-shaped valleys (although, they may be for a few). They will, however,  refer to place in reverential terms. It is invoked and received with much agreement in their gathers. But, they also have a vast array of other particular words in their lexicon: esker, talus, flâneur, hetertopia, hydrofracturing, and cultural landscape, to name but a few.

    They are a curious and diverse collective. Some look up at the skies, others wander the coastal zones, many cluster in cities, while more talk to farmers, or parents, or, even, the homeless. They measure and observe. They wear body warmers and hard hats. They carry notebooks. Notebooks filled with insights, sketches, diagrams and scribbles.

    They care; about the planet, about people, about life, about the future. Read this carefully, for you may be able to identify one – a colleague, a friend, a loved one, a stranger on the street – and read even more carefully, and you might discover you are one.



  • Ghostly Geographies: Cobwebbing

    Fake cobwebs are a common decorative feature found in houses around Halloween, along with pumpkins, both fake and real, skeletons, severed limbs and ghostly entities.  The cobwebs caught my attention as they are the most mundane of these items, by far.  It is rather ironic that real cobwebs, signs of dirt and uncleanliness, are swept away from suburban homes, while their fake counterparts are strewn with gusto as signs of abandonment, hauntedness and general scariness.


    On reflection, it is interesting that the cobweb has become this symbol. It indicates a space that has been abandoned by humans, presumably for some ghastly or unspoken-of reason, but is occupied by supernatural beings or forces. In passing by or, more viscerally, passing through the cobweb we are entering the realm of the haunted, the ghostly, the spectral. In pop-culture, the heroes (or victims) venture into some form of edge or other place – the abandoned house, old mine, closed down hospital  - and soon enough someone encounters a cobweb, after which all manner of unusual things unfold. The cobweb then is a barrier, it is a manifestation of a threshold which must literally be breached, with accompanying consequences for those who dare to enter those dark territories.

    The suburban fake cobwebs try to capture a sense of this. For those getting into the spirit of things, especially children, the cobwebs can convey a sense of these ghostly themes; and for those who only seen the shallowness and commercialism, perhaps you might consider visiting that abandoned house, old mine or closed down hospital instead…

  • Star Wars Frontiers

    I came across a video by Sincerely Truman, from their Dear JJ Abrams campaign which aims to “Make Star Wars great again” (presumably a reference to the disappointing Star Wars prequals).

    While it is a very clever and well put together video, the emphasis on ‘the frontier’ stood out to me. The first of the four ‘rules’ they chose to highlight to make Star Wars great again was a geographical concept. The original Star Wars took place on the periphery, the frontier: “It happens out here. Away form civilisation. Amidst smugglers and bounty hunters. Star Wars is a Western.” This presents an inherently spatial understanding of Star Wars. An element of the excitement and danger of the original trilogy was the settings: in mob-controlled territories, frozen hideouts and swampy retreats.

    Indeed, the connection between Science Fiction and Westerns is rather well developed, from Gene Roddenberry’s supposedly selling Star Trek as a western in space and Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe beautifully marrying the two (see my previous post discussing geographical aspects of Firefly/Serenity Universe).

    While the argument may rest on simplistic tropes – an urban civilised core versus a wild adventure edge – it is still a good point which draws attention to the role of place, even in deep space.

  • Election Messages

    The forthcoming referendum on the retention or abolition of the Seanad (the Upper House of the Irish Parliament), has seen political parties putting up posters reflecting their respective positions on the referendum. Without going into the debates, I would like to offer one comment on the posters, based entirely on non-representative personal and anecdotal observation.

    Sinn Féin Seanad Referendum Poster

    It seems that the messages differ geographically, reflecting a strategy of communicating distinct messages to different socio-economic groups. For example, posters in areas that would be described as more middle class seem to stress the possibility of saving money, while posters in areas that would be considered more working class, such as the one from Sinn Féin pictured, focus on ‘elitism’ and inequality in the process of electing that body (this refers to the fact that of the 60 Senators only 6 are directly elected by members of the public, but this constituency is defined by having a degree from certain universities).

    This may be a case of political parties speaking to the citizens in areas in which they have strong support, however a consequence of such is the sending of different messages to different groups in society. I’m not entirely comfortable with our political classes carving us up socio-economically, seems a bit divide and conquer to me…

  • Observing what is there at Kent Station

    Among the distinct features of Kent Station, Cork city’s train station, is this section of wall which is jam packed with so much stuff: functional and cultural, pragmatic and odd. My interest with this small space, which prompted me to take the photo, highlights the role of basic observation in not only research but in our daily lives.

    A side interior wall of Kent Station, Cork.

    A side interior wall of Kent Station, Cork.

    While the physical limits of a photo can sometimes be rather frustrating, in this case they actually frame the scene perfectly. These different objects have clear functions, many of which make sense in the context of a train station, but a still find it necessary to comment. On this patch of wall there is:

    • an internet kiosk (out-of-order) (modern-ish, but increasingly irrelevant with the rise of smartphones),
    • a public phone (an utter rarity with the growth in mobile phone ownership in the last 15 years, although their role in places such as trains stations ensures their presence for another while, until they’ll all be stored in museums, right next to the home phone section, complete with hall table),
    • a change machine (an object in a symbiotic relationship with the phone/kiosk),
    • a post box (a continuing strong feature of the Irish landscape testifying to the role of post and the letters),
    • a fire hose (seems a little high to reach in an emergency) and a poster outlining the ‘Public Evacuation Plan’ (although, I doubt many of the public actually check it out),
    • a wireless internet router (in many ways a direct challenge to the internet kiosk and even pay phone – and by implication the change machine)
    • a vending machine (when everything else is closed),
    • a statue of Our Lady/Blessed Virgin Mary – dubbed ‘Our Lady of Kent Station‘* by Eoin O’Mahoney (check out his excellent blog 53 Degrees) (the Marion statue is another prominent aspect of the Irish landscape; this statue, there since 1966, was on the opposite wall until renovations a few years ago saw it move across – indicated a recent intentional decision to retain this religious/cultural icon),
    • a security camera – the bottom of which is visible on the top left (a cog of the constant CCTV-based surveillance in which we lead our urban lives), and,
    • the arches and drain pipe (the Station is a pro-typical old train station in many ways, with high pitched roofs, long platforms and ornate red-bricked walls; although, the main platform is curved making it rather distinct).

    Although this wall-space is a noteworthy thing to write a short blogpost on, the greater point is the importance of observing the world around us. The world is generally filled with things ready to be noticed and appreciated. Observation was one of the primary skills emphasised in my geography undergraduate courses. It is in truly engaging with the world around us that we can understand it and be motivated to preserve, change or improve it, as required.

    A good example of this is in an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible (it explores architectural ideas in a very interesting and insightful way) which highlights the great many public staircases in California. It shows how these fascinating features are generally unknown and under-used; how they can be discovered and explored with enthusiasm; but also, how they can be blocked by private interests and re-opened by committed activists.

    Ultimately, while observation is an essential research tool, it is also a duty of the citizen more generally to be observant. Take in what is going on around you, be involved in the world. While the commuters, tourists and people of Cork pass by the wall-space the eclectic collection will remain, or maybe not, have you noticed?

    *For more photo’s of statues of Our Lady check out: Shooting Statues

  • Walking a Cycling City

    Groningen in the north-east of the Netherlands is a biking city. While cycling is an extremely common in the country, the shear dominance of bikes and cycling in this city is noteworthy. I was in the city for the Fourth International Emotional Geographies Conference and we were all struck by the role of bikes in daily life.  Indeed, we were informed that there were 2.4 bikes per head of population in the city.

    It was both fascinating and inspiring to see what a city can be like when bikes become the prevalent form of transport instead of cars. As a pedestrian it took a little getting used to, bikes whizzing by, people of all ages and backgrounds pedalling and stationary bikes occupying considerable space. I found myself having to get good at estimate how gaps between cyclists for crossing the ‘roads’. I resisted to urge to rent a bike myself, instead deciding to explore the place at my walking pace.

    It’s nice to think that cities can be like this, but also unfortunate the it is unlikely that such a culture would ever come to be in Ireland. Although most of our cities are small enough to be cycling cities, it would require a large scale shift in thinking and considerable official support in terms of infrastructure, not least large investments in biking parking spaces and proper bike lanes – completely separate to the main road by reducing car lanes or making streets one way. While any such changes are a while off we always have Groningen!

    A bike lane to one of the main squares Vismarkt. Although these lanes are occasionally used by cars, it is dominated by the flow of thousands of bikes daily.

    A bike lane to one of the main squares Vismarkt. Although these lanes are occasionally used by cars, it is dominated by the flow of thousands of bikes daily. ES: Una ciclovía a una de las principales plazas de Vismarkt. Aunque estas vías son usadas por autos ocasionalmente, están dominadas diariamente por el flujo de bicicletas.

    Bikes packed into a laneway off Grote Markt. Bikes are parked every where here, there are marked out areas on all footpaths and public buildings (such as the University and Train Station) have the facilities to park hundreds of bikes.

    Bikes packed into a laneway off Grote Markt. Bikes are parked every where here, there are marked out areas on all footpaths and public buildings (such as the University and Train Station) have the facilities to park hundreds of bikes. ES: Bicicletas amontonadas en una vía adyacente al Grote Markt. Las bicicletas están estacionadas en todas partes en este lugar, hay áreas demarcadas en todas las aceras y edificios públicos (como la Universidad y la Estación de Tren) tienen instalaciones para estacionar cientos de bicicletas.

    A short video taken on my phone showing the dominant bike culture by capturing the flows and interactions at a junction on the Grote Markt. ES: Un video corto filmado con mi teléfono mostrando el dominio de la cultura ciclista, capturando los flujos e interacciones en un cruce en Grote Markt.

    Spanish Version

    Groninga, al noreste de los Países Bajos, es una ciudad en bicicleta. Si bien andar en bicicleta es bastante común en el país, la prevalencia de las bicicletas y el ciclismo en esta ciudad son notables. Estuve en la ciudad para la Cuarta Conferencia Internacional de Geografías Emocionales y todos nos sorprendimos por el rol de las bicicletas en la vida diaria de las personas. De hecho, nos informaron que hay 2.4 bicicletas por persona en la ciudad.

    Fue facinante e inspirador ver cómo puede ser una ciudad cuando las bicicletas se convierten en la forma principal de transporte en vez de los autos. Como peatón acostumbrarse toma tiempo a las bicicletas pasando raudas a nuestro lado, gente de todas las edades y status pedaleando, y también tantas bicicletas estacionadas ocupando espacios considerables. Me encontré a mi mismo mejorando mi habilidad de estimar los espacios entre bicicletas para poder cruzar las “calles”. Resistí la tentación de alquilar una bicicleta, y decidí explorar el lugar a mi propio ritmo.

    Es lindo pensar que las ciudades pueden ser así, desafortunadamente es poco probable que esta cultura se instale en Irlanda. A pesar de que la mayoría de nuestras ciudades son lo suficientemente pequeñas para ser ciudades en bicicleta, requeriría un gran cambio en nuestra forma de pensar y considerable apoyo del gobierno en términos de infraestructura, por lo menos grandes inversiones en espacios para estacionar las bicicletas y ciclovías apropiadas – completamente separadas de las calles principales o haciéndolas calles de un sólo sentido. Si bien estos cambios aún tomen un poco de tiempo, siempre tendremos a Groninga!

  • Level Crossing Freemount XT086

    I was presented with the opportunity to wait at a level crossing on a quiet country road a few evenings ago. I took the chance to photograph, with my phone, the closed level crossing, and then, the passing train.

    A level crossing is an interesting intersection of transport types. The railway and the road cross each others’ paths. The topography or some specific conditions do not favour a bridge, resulting in this crosscutting space. The point of convergence is nether entirely roadway or railway, it is a hybrid. While driving through a level crossing, I always look to the side, at the parallel tracks stretching off in either direction – a clearer, more flowing form of transport going perpendicularly to myself. Conversely, when I’m on a train, I catch glimpses of cars, bikes, people, waiting on the road – each of them paused on their own journeys.

    Ordinarily, the road traffic has dominance; however, this is merely because of the absence of the train, once it arrives the roadway is temporarily blocked off. I like the necessary primacy of the train for two reasons. Firstly, as public transport it is carrying more people in a more sustainable manner than the car, and, therefore, serves a greater (social) good. Secondly, it is an ironical metaphor that the road vehicle has to make way for the train, as it was the growth in the use of trucks and cars in the mid-twentieth century that resulted in the demise of the once considerable train network.





    Ironród Éireann (Irish Rail) map of all the level crossings in the Republic of Ireland

  • The ‘Verse

    Can know all the math in the ‘verse but take a boat in the air that you don’t love? She’ll shake you off just as sure as a turn in the worlds.- Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, Serenity, 2005

    Far as I see it, you people been given the shortest end of the stick ever been offered a human soul in this crap-heel ‘Verse. – Jayne Cobb,  Jaynestown 1.7, 2002

    The ‘Verse is the colloquialism for the known Universe in the science-fiction TV series Firefly (2002-03) and the follow-up film Serenity (2005). The series/film, created by Joss Whedon, are a Sci-Fi Western or Space Western drama set in 2517 when people have colonised a new star system after a mass-exodus of ‘earth-that-was’ due to population pressures.  The show, which was cancelled after only series/season (although it has a considerable cult status) and subsequent film, follow a motley band of characters on a Firefly-class space ship called Serenity. In doing so, like all good science-fiction, it explores deeper political, social and cultural issues. The ‘Verse is a rich terrain for geographic observations.

    Map of the 'Verse: CNC (Celestial Navigation Chart of the Verse)  Version 1.06  Source: Accessed 8 Feb 2013

    Map of the ‘Verse: CNC (Celestial Navigation Chart of the Verse) Version 1.06 Source: Accessed 8 Feb 2013

    The ‘Verse is one star system, consisting of a cluster of five stars and several brown dwarfs, in which people are spread over dozens of planets and hundreds of moons (all mostly referred to as worlds). This is a more limited setting than other sci-fi shows and, therefore, creates a situation that balances the expansiveness of space and the containment of a single star system, albeit a large system consisting of several minor ones (facilitated by the absence of faster-than-light travel). The ‘Verse then is the sphere in which these peoples operate, it is the ‘known’ universe in as much it is the region of life and existence.

    The ‘Verse as a vast yet bound space is ideally suited to examinations of cores and peripheries, with the central worlds being centres of government, civility and high-culture and the peripheral (or Rim) worlds being unruly, rough and rustic. Themes which are central to the stories, such as the controlling (semi-authoritarian) state, the dominance of mega-corporations, and individual’s and group’s search for freedom and self-determination, can unfold nicely in this universe.

    Related to these ideas, is the employment of (US American) Western tropes, including lawlessness, survival, persistence and evangelicalism. In many ways, it is as much a Western as a Science-Fiction tale. The peripheral worlds are literally frontier places. It is in these spaces that the taming and ‘civilising’ forces and the wild elements of the edge come in contact. The protagonists of the series/film occupy this space well as they are mostly anti-heroes who engage in illegal or at least para-legal activities, while adhering to their own code-of-honour. The lifestyles, landscapes, architecture, clothing, folk customs and dialects evoke the ‘Wild West’.  And, as a Western, of course, there is plenty of room for horses, shoot-outs, bar fights and train heists.

    Union of Allied Planets flag (episode Bushwacked), a mixture of the US and Chinese flags. Source: accessed 9 Feb 2013

    Union of Allied Planets flag (episode Bushwacked), a mixture of the US and Chinese flags. Source: File:Flag_of_Alliance_(Firefly).svg Accessed 9 Feb 2013

    Language is a strong component of the world-making. Firstly, the occasional use of Chinese in the dialogue represents the survival as English and Chinese as the primary languages of humanity. The Union of Allied Planets, the corporate super-government, is a blend of US American and Chinese culture and all the worlds of ‘Verse have a Chinese (Sino) and and English (Anglo) name. The implicit geo-politcal statement being the continued roles of the US and China as the dominant world powers into the future.

    Secondly, the manner and style of speech plays a large role in creating this universe. The Rim Worlds’ dialects and turns-of-phrase conjures up the folk speak of the West, while also differentiating those from the Rim Worlds – the fronters’ people, including some of the main cast (Mal, Zoe, Jayne and Kaylee) – from the civilised peoples of the core worlds – which also includes a number of the crew (Inara, Simon, River and Shepherd Book). Rim Worlds’ speech includes elements such as truncating the “g” from “ing” words (“schoolin’”), using “don’t” instead of “doesn’t, no -ly on adverbs from adjectives and misuse or malforming of verbs (Firefly Wiki Accessed 9 Feb 2013).

    Examples of dialogue:

    • Mal: And I’m thinkin’ you weren’t burdened with an overabundance of schooling. So why don’t we just ignore each other until we go away? Lund: The In’e’pen’ents were a bunch of cowardly, inbred piss-pots. Should’ve been killed off of every world spinnin’.
    • Jayne: Oh, I think you might wanna reconsider that last part. See, I married me a powerful ugly creature.
    • Mal: “Jayne, your mouth is talking. You might wanna look to that.”

    Due to the short run of the series, many elements of the ‘Verse remain unexplored; however, the setting and the worlds created did offer interesting speculation of futures that will, or at least may be.

    Further reading: 

    The Firefly Wiki article on The Verse

    The Wikipedia list of the Firefly universe Planets and Moons

    Image of the Verse

  • Geographies of Bond

    With the 50th Anniversary of the release of Dr No (Connery, 1962) and the launch of Skyfall (Craig 2012) late last year, renewed attention was paid to the James Bond series of movies. Amongst this interest there were several noteworthy geographic contributions, including articles in The Atlantic Cities, which incorporated a (Google) map of the Geography of James Bond, a photo collection from Discovery News, incorporating a piece by Prof. Klaus Dodds. Building on these, I wish to add my own thoughts on the geographies of Bond.

    Dr No Poster. Source:

    Dr No Poster. Source: wiki/File:DrNoposter.jpg

    A feature of the films is the protagonist’s “hyper-mobility”, as Dodds labels it, with the “footloose spy” hopping from place-to-place, sometimes traversing the globe in the two-hour adventure. This demonstrates the exciting lifestyle of the fictionalised espionage world, brings the film to new and exotic locations, shows the high-level stakes involved and helps keep the plot moving along nicely.  In The Living Daylights (Dalton, 1987), for example, his movements take him to Czechoslovakia, Austria, Britain, Tangier and Afghanistan. Furthermore, his mobility also sees him going underwater, to the extremes of the planet and even into space. In this regard, Bond’s characteristics – privilege, charisma, occupation, funding, determination, and disregard for rules and authority – combine to make him the ultra-mobile modern man.

    The far-off and exotic settings mainly show a simplified and stereotype-filled view of the world. This is obviously not unusual in cinematic terms, however it was a central element of the Bond Franchise. In the blog, Geographic Travels, it is pointed out that the top most visited cities, besides London (which features in every film except You Only Live Twice (Connery 1967) and Moonraker (Moore 1971)) are Istanbul, Hong Kong and Venice, which evoke ideas of Near East Oriental exoticism, Far East Oriental exoticism and Picturesque Europe, respectively. Furthermore, Bond took us to these marvellous places, which in turn imbued him with their enticing nature. From his first outing to Jamaica to his most recent in Hong Kong, the man and the place define each other.

    However, there is, as always, slightly more to the story. You Only Live Twice (Connery 1967) was based in Japan, and while it may not have offered a holistic or realistic view of the society and culture, it was one of the first times that Japan had featured so heavily in a major Western film since WWII. Just over two decades after that conflict, there would still have been sensitivities and political concerns surrounding Japan, especially in the US. In this regard the exotic location, although simplified, may have provided a service. On a side note, I also came across the idea that the Japanese Secret Service ninjas which stormed Blofeld’s secret volcano lair (the prototypical Bond set-up, satirised in the Austin Powers films) was one of the earliest sightings of ninjas in Western pop-culture.

    Another factor in Bond’s mobility is the role of vehicles. The cars obviously stand out as the main type of transport associated with 007. However, his missions have included boats, naval vessels, planes, helicopters, submarines, trains, cable cars, ski mobiles, a double-decker bus, a blimp, a moon buggy, an autogyro (Little Nellie) a space shuttle, and an ‘alligator’ boat. While many of the vehicular scenes are about chase and explosions, there is also an implicit prioritisation of  the mobile (see my post on Mobilities). Movements, spaces of mobility and mobile locations, which are frequently overlooked in cinema and television matter in the Bond-verse. So, for example, M’s office, complete with Moneypenny, can be on a submarine; the fate of the world can be controlled from an oil-tanker; and, a missing helicopter is central to the plot.

    The collective content of the twenty-three films have so much material jammed into them that it is the stuff of dreams for academics and socio-cultural commentators. There are numerous other topics that could be covered in any geographical discussion of Bond, including gender roles, geo-politics (and the concept of the licence to kill), the theme songs, technology and fashion. But as we know James Bond will return soon, maybe another post might also appear…