Exclusive: Interview with Nick Middleton, author of “An Atlas of Countries That Don’t Exist”

Ken Powell and Nick Middleton (Photo: D K Powell)

Ken Powell and Nick Middleton (Photo: D K Powell)

By Ken Powell

Nick Middleton’s latest book looks at countries which have declared existence but are yet to be recognised internationally. He gave a talk at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake on Sunday 2 October and I caught up with him after book signing.

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KP: I know you said that reading the Narnia stories to your daughter and considering the idea of ‘hidden lands’ was inspiration to you for this book but I’m wondering was this a case of over the many years of your expertise as a geographer that you actually had this material in bits and pieces in your collection of notes or was this a pie-in-the-sky idea and had to research everything from scratch?

NM: More the latter than the former. I think there were seeds there particularly with the UK. I remember as a child we went on a family holiday to the Isle of Man and I found it quite peculiar that they had their own parliament so it was separate and different in some way.

So there were seeds in some cases but I think it was really triggered by this reading of Narnia and then I started looking into it. I was amazed at how many countries there are. There are fifty in the book but I could have filled it several times over easily; and sticking with the relatively serious ones as well. When you introduce the more jokey ones you have dozens and dozens you could include. As it was, it was staggering the number so I thought ‘yes, there’s a book here’.

KP: How do you even begin to find out things such as that the South Pole has an internet code all of its own?

NM: (laughs) Yes well once you start digging sometimes you hit gold and sometimes you don’t. The sources I used were rather widespread: some were academic papers, I used quite a lot of newspaper pieces about places, I got hold of ITN news footage about Northern Cyprus, Tibet has quite an active network of memories of what it was like when the Chinese invaded in the 1950s – so I used all sorts of sources in multiple different directions.

KP: I worked in Bangladesh for many years and I came away with a ‘global village’ mentality – I’ve just done a TEDx talk on exactly that point – my argument would be that nationalities are ceasing to have any importance. Your book deals with people who are saying the opposite: that they want their own borders. What’s your view? Do nation states actually matter any longer? Were you writing because of the injustice of people wanting to be recognised? Or was this just an academic exercise which was fascinating in itself without need for further commentary?

NM: I think all of those things but much less the latter because I think nation states are still very important, like it or not, because if you want to go anywhere outside the UK you have to have a passport. Who issues that? Your nation state.

And that’s what’s interesting about a place like Somaliland which offers its own passports but there’s only a handful of places which reluctantly accept them. So they’re massively restricted by their non-country as to where they can go. You can go illegally as a refugee but we all know that’s a difficult road, so just with this one example nation states are still important. Although you’re right to an extent that the internet and movement of capital and so on is making the nation state less important it’s still important in my opinion.

KP: Is that just because of the practicalities of passports and so on?

NM: No, it’s because nation states have armies and guns! Why isn’t Tibet free? Because it’s full of Chinese soldiers with weapons. They say ‘right, this is the way it is and we’re going to back it up’. It’s either nation states that do that or freedom fighters or wannabe nation states – who get their weapons from other nation states!

KP: Do you think the notion of the ‘global village’ then is pie-in-the-sky because of human nature?

NM: It’s a nice idea but it has been horribly perverted hasn’t it? Look at the news footage on any day about places like Syria – what’s ‘global village’ about Syria? It would be nice and perhaps information technology will help it be realised but yes I think it is human nature which makes it impossible. Yes there are lots of people who would like a ‘global village’ but there are too many bullies who don’t.

KP: The stronger person is always going to want to overpower the weaker…

NM: Unless it suits them to support some freedom movement somewhere else, and there are so many examples of that.

KP: Is it true that it was the Tintin stories which inspired you to be a geographer?

NM: Yeah I’m a great Tintin fan.

KP: What was it about the stories which grabbed you?

NM: Yes it was the epic journeys. Okay so Tintin is now frowned upon by some people because it was written in a time when people were more racist but, nonetheless, they’re still good stories about places and that’s what appealed to me – and still appeals.

My daughter discovered Tintin recently. She’s read most of them now, my old copies, so I’ve sort of revisited them. And also I enjoyed and still enjoy the vocabulary. Captain Haddock had a most extraordinary vocabulary of insults; I remember making lists of these strange words like ‘bashi-bazouks’ and looking them to discover whole new avenues of the English language. My daughter, interestingly enough does the same thing! So they were good adventures both literally and metaphorically.

KP: So they gave you the bug to go travelling – I take it you’ve been to these places you write of?

NM: Not all of these no (he taps a copy of his book), but lots of places yes. I have a competition with a friend, we’re both trying to get to a hundred countries.

Read Ken’s review of Nick Middleton’s talk here