Google Maps show an imaginary place near to where I live: a town with the ugly name of Argleton. This has been commented on elsewhere, with theories that they have simply got the name Aughton wrong (though Aughton appears as well), or that it is a deliberate mistake, designed to catch out unauthorised users of the maps, like a ‘trap street’ inserted in an A-Z map. However, Argleton does more than just sit there as a hidden feature: it shoves its way into people’s attention in many ways. Various software packages use Google’s geographical information, and Argleton seems to have primary claim on the surrounding postcodes – one can rent property there, or read inspection reports for its nurseries, at least according to the internet.
The possibility of actually visiting an imaginary place seemed irresistible. In terms of my journey, not to go there would be a dereliction of duty, like saying ‘I could have made a detour to Rock Candy Mountain’ or ‘Tir-nan-Og’, ‘but I decided to press on directly to Maghull instead’. So today I decided to make the expedition – from the world we know to a fictitious and uncertain place.
Reaching non-existent lands can be accomplished in many ways, but I decided to use Google itself to navigate to this one. After all, they invented it. I summoned up a route, which turned out to be a straightforward hike along the A59, rather than, say, a trip through the back of a wardrobe. Mundane as this may seem, I kept my eyes peeled for signs and portents – not knowing what relevance a strange map created from a faded planning notice, a partial alphabet tool in a closed-down garage, some broken fencing in the shape of a rune or a burning web may have in later stages of the journey. It pays to be prepared.
If Argleton were to feature in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, it would have good company in the A section, such as Amazonia, Averoigne and Atlantis. Specifically it would nestle between Argia (which ‘has earth instead of air’ and where ‘the streets are completely filled with dirt…over the roofs of houses hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds’) and Argyanna (‘a strategically important town in southern Rerek’).
I think what’s offensive about ‘Argleton’ is that it sounds like a mockery of Aughton. Perhaps it is like the Hellmouth in Sunnydale, except rather than being a portal for evil beings, it acts as the doorway for forces of debasement, parody, travesty and corruption; forces of error that subtly undermine and distort…
So I approached cautiously, peering towards it across innocent seeming fields,
finding the ‘place’ to be protected by various walls, broken fences (perhaps magically stronger in their broken-ness), wards and charms.
I moved towards the epicentre. I paused before passing beyond the realm of true names to that of the unashamedly fictional.
You have to take care at these times. It is all about detail… I had come equipped, with apparatus to protect me from any strangeness that might occur. I didn’t want to come out the other side reduced to a parody of myself, shambling out transformed into, say, Ray Byfield, Marketing Director of Argleton University. So I had with these items with me:
1. A Wonder Woman comic. I thought the Lasso of Truth, wielded by a character created by one of the inventors of the lie-detector, would provide some symbolic defence against irreality.
2. A bad copy of something else: Kyrik: Warlock Warrior (Gardner F. Fox, 1975) is a pastiche of Conan the Barbarian – a piece of entertaining but unoriginal hackwork; Kyrik is to Conan as Argleton is to Aughton. I thought a bit of this would be a kind of inoculation, passages like ‘The outlaws stared at that darkness, saw it shot through with streaks of vivid lightnings, red as the fires of Haderon’ acting as antigens against any reality-dissolving effects that might be encountered.
3. A toy tapir, bought recently at Transreal Fiction. I figured this little guy must be steeped in alternate worlds, having lived in a science fiction shop for a while – s/he could help navigate back to the real world if some compromised reality became confusing.
The time had come to walk in to Argleton itself. A small copse of trees, with a stream and a tumbledown kissing gate, seemed appropriately fairylandish. I paused to photograph the sky, a dim gesture towards Google’s Brother Eye satellites – watching, distorting, from above the bright skies.
A few more metres took me beyond the ‘argleton’ zone to Aughton itself, described in Arthur Mee’s Lancashire as ‘A Patchwork of the Centuries’. This description could lead a fancifully-minded person to expect some collage of time, with biplanes and pterodactyls flying above people hovering to the post office on their anti-gravity discs. However Mee was really just talking about the church, which unfortunately was locked. But, like Kyrik (p.79) I had ‘Enough [coins] for a wineskin and a leathern jack or two of ale’, so I visited the Stanley Arms. I ordered a pint of Clark‘s Classic Blonde, reflecting as I drank the pleasant hoppy beer (3.9% ABV) that I could construct the whole remaining journey around beer with risque names, and how my feminist pals of the late 70s would have boycotted pubs and breweries for this kind of thing. Guess I’ll be visiting our old haunts when I get to Brighton…
Then I began to think, had I actually left ‘Argleton’? Or was I still in some kind of alternate universe? The differences could be minor. Perhaps, in one of the decorative books arranged in an alcove in the pub, one word would be different. Or maybe when I left and peered back towards Liverpool, I would see Lutyens vast, never-built cathedral dominating the skyline, instead of the familiar wigwam.
And I was right to be concerned. As I left, I found the evidence: a discarded, new Woodbine packet in a hedgerow. I’m convinced that Woodbines don’t exist anymore, or rather that they hadn’t when I left home. It’s been a long time since Van Morrison ‘Bought five Woodbines at the shop on the corner’…
A pack with the health/death notice on it would be anachronistic, like a horsedrawn carriage with a CD player. But in this world, people still buy and smoke them. So here we are, through the looking glass. Argleton, and all unexisting paces, have become a tiny bit more real.
Walking the territory redraws the map.