Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

You come across all kinds of stuff in the edgelands – mouldering leftovers from past endeavours as well as shiny, new hopes.  The book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, is like that, too – a bit of a jumble, but plenty that’s interesting and unexpected.

The book takes the form of around thirty short essays, each one sketching an aspect of the edgelands, from  Paths and Dens to Ruins and Woodlands, by way of Canals and Landfill. Organising their narrative this way, Farley and Roberts steer clear of the common form of landscape writing as an expedition or journey, though the accounts here are clearly based on many walks through edgeland territory, as well as childhood familiarity with the terrain. Instead they have presented us with a sort of gazetteer of generic types: paths, dens, landfill, ponds, sewerage, wire, bridges, ruins and woodlands – assorted topics, just like the motley objects that tend to accumulate in the tracts of ignored land that form the edgelands.

What, exactly, are these edgelands?  Robert Macfarlane provided one of the best descriptions, albeit in a review of the book that was not especially sympathetic:

The edgelands are the debatable space where city and countryside fray into one another. They comprise jittery, jumbled, broken ground: brownfield sites and utilities infrastructure, crackling substations and pallet depots, transit hubs and sewage farms, scrub forests and sluggish canals, allotments and retail parks, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerilla ecologies.

For the two poet-authors – both ‘edgelands comprehensive schoolchildren in the 1970s’ – the edgelands comprise a ‘zone of inattention’ in which all manner of interest and beauty thrive. They marvel at this ‘richly mysterious region in our midst’ and celebrate it as a ‘place of possibility, mystery, beauty’.  It’s a wilderness, yet so close to our urban centres and so familiar it is never seen, yet we see it all the time. Passed through, negotiated, unnamed, ignored, the edgelands have become the great wild places on our doorsteps, places so difficult to acknowledge they barely exist.

‘Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism’, say Farley and Roberts, ‘there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists; places where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard’.

The authors describe this as a book about ‘the blank spaces on the A-Z, the hinterlands of Britain that are not urban and not yet country’, the skuzzy, overlooked fringe of UK towns where homes end and motorways, business parks and Little Chefs reside. Sewage farms, disused mines, overgrown allotments and bridges daubed with florid graffiti are all grist to their mill. They once told an interviewer how the idea for the book came about:

It all began in the bar of a Premier Inn, somewhere on the edge of the Midlands. We had this idea to celebrate the vigour and diversity of these oh-so-familiar places, neither city nor country, wild or not wild, but the unnamed, ignored places which have a strange beauty all of their own. Research trips were planned to exotic locations – Swindon, Wolverhampton, Gateshead – staying in edgelands hotels, walking edgelands roads and talking to edgelands people.

The book – which I recall the pair reading extracts from a year ago on Radio 4’s Book of the Week – is a pleasure to read, with some essays, as you might expect from a couple of poets, bordering on the lyrical (though, sadly, although poems by others are quoted, Farley and Roberts offer none  of their own).  Some essays are more successful than others. There’s a feeling of the book running out of steam towards the end with accounts of retail parks, motels and golf ranges, weather stations and piers that seem less authentically edgeland. Canals, meanwhile, an edgeland essential if ever there was one, get a few short and somewhat limp pages.

Paul Farley spent his pre-school years just around the corner from where we have lived for thirty years:

The first house my parents lived in after I was born was on Ullet Road, near the Park. I have only the faintest memories of that house, and I’m not sure any of these are very reliable. My mum used to take me in my pram to the Palm House, and I really want to be able to recall this, but the story has taken on the shape of a memory. Then we moved round and lived just off Wavertree Road, in houses that backed onto the railway at Edge Hill. This area I do remember. It was overrun with mice. They ate my mum’s wedding cake! It must have been quite minty, but kids don’t really notice peeling wallpaper or mould. The trains shook past at night, and I loved it. All those streets were flattened and redeveloped years ago.

Then, towards the end of his primary school years, the family moved out to the edgelands of Netherley, one of those council estates built out in the fields on the edge of Liverpool in the 1960s.  This is how he described it in an article for Granta in 2008:

We all climbed into the back of this furniture van with our stuff, and were deposited a few miles away in a half-built place surrounded by fields and trees. Insects. Birds. I remember even the light seemed different. Everywhere smelt of newness: fresh-cut timber, putty, paint. But then over the coming months and years, the older city we’d moved from sort of grew and loomed in my imagination. I started to miss it, and as soon as I was old enough I’d jump on buses to revisit it. Similar kinds of things must have happened to kids all over the country, because most big English cities had housing clearance programmes like Liverpool’s.

Michael Symmons Roberts had a similar experience in Manchester, and the two writers begin Edgelands with this explanation of how the unique landscape of the urban fringe burrowed itself deep into their souls:

For a long while – an entire childhood, in fact – we wondered where the countryside actually was, or even if it really existed. Growing up on the edge of two cities – Liverpool and Manchester – in the early Seventies, it was easy enough to walk for a short while and soon find yourself lost in back lanes or waste ground; to follow the wooded perimeters of a golf course; an old path leading through scratchy shrubland, or the course of a drainage ditch. It was easy enough to find yourself on the edges of arable land; to follow the track bed of a dismantled railway or descend into an abandoned quarry. But none of this ever really felt like the countryside.

Anyone who has spent a childhood mooching around the fringes of four English towns and cities, where urban and rural negotiate and renegotiate their borders, might have come up with the word ‘edgelands’. If you know those places where overspill housing estates break into scrubland; wasteland. If you know this underdeveloped, unwatched territory, you know that they have ‘edge’. We might have come up with it ourselves, but geographer Marion Shoard got there first. Her writing on England’s edgelands; her call to arms, for poets and novelists to celebrate them and above all her naming of this ground, was the starting point for our study of these areas.

It was a landscape that entered my soul, too, growing up in a now-prosperous former coal-mining village in Cheshire. Poynton had been the centre of a small but thriving coal-mining industry from the 18th century until the mid 1930s.  As a kid in the 1950s I roamed freely through a classic edgelands landscape where farmers’ fields and woodland shaded imperceptibly into the ghostly industrial remains of mine-working machinery, railway tracks and slag heaps.

A favourite childhood haunt was ‘the Jigger’, a level path that was the remains of a railway spur that linked the collieries in Higher Poynton and Middlewood to the main line at Poynton station; straight and narrow and overgrown in places, it pushed past fields and through woodland.  The tracks were gone, but the path was littered with industrial remains: crumbling and overgrown brick buildings and shards of rusting metal machinery. For a child, it was an edgelands heaven.

‘Dens’ is one of the most evocatively successful essays in the book, also imbued with childhood memories. It opens with this vivid account of two makeshift dens:

Inside a large ditch overhung with whitethorn that marks the border between a few acres of unkempt meadow and the perimeter of a private golf course, a tepee-like vertical frame has been attempted using pliant elder branches, which in turn have been cross-woven then packed with grasses to disguise its presence; the floor inside has been carpeted with an offcut of ratty Axminster and the rubberised foot mats from an abandoned car; a red plastic milk crate, partially melted in one corner from the heat of a fire, serves as both chair and table, where a boy is studying a punished copy of Mayfair, pulled from a hedge full of empty vodka bottles in a lay-by.

A sheet of tarpaulin, stolen from a nearby lorry yard, has been used to insulate the inside of another hollow bramble hedge near a main road; the entry point is a crawlspace a few feet lower, hidden on the leeward side, and only the slimmest child can enter, beavers like, into its hidden space; a hole has been left in the crown of the construction to act as a chimney for the small fires that will kipper the clothes and hair of its occupants with woodsmoke; a few broken-down Golden Wonder cardboard boxes make a comfortable if slightly damp and spongy floor, where a boy has stripped down the spring-piston mechanism of a .22 air pistol.


The den: home of childhood memories

It was Marion Shoard who first coined the term edgelands to describe a terrain of ‘rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland’. This was in an essay ‘Edgelands‘ published in Remaking the Landscape in 2002:

Britain’s towns and cities do not usually sit cheek by jowl with its countryside, as we often casually assume. Between urban and rural stands a kind of landscape quite different from either. Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland. All these heterogeneous elements are arranged in an unruly and often apparently chaotic fashion against a background of unkempt wasteland frequently swathed in riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic. This peculiar landscape is only the latest version of an interfacial rim that has always separated settlements from the countryside to a greater or lesser extent. In our own age, however,this zone has expanded vastly in area, complexity and singularity. Huge numbers of people now spend much of their time living, working or moving within or through it. Yet for most of us, most of the time, this mysterious no man’s land passes unnoticed: in our imaginations, as opposed to our actual lives, it barely exists.

In this YouTube video, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts take a tour of Birmingham’s edgelands:

As you might expect from a couple of poets, there are countless references to poets and other artists, photographers and writers who have been inspired by these areas (actually, there are over 75 such references; I didn’t count them, but someone whose review I came across had done).  This is one of the joys of the book, as the remainder of this post will reveal: I encountered artists both familiar and previously unknown to me: here you will find cited names like Keith Arnatt, George Shaw, Michael Landy, Richard Billingham, William Eggleston, John Davies, Philip Larkin and many, many more.

George Shaw: The Time Machine, 2010

George Shaw: The Time Machine, 2010

I was already familiar with George Shaw’s wonderful paintings of nondescript landscapes of our inner cities and edgelands: scenes of typical urban desolation on Tile Hill housing estate in Coventry, where he grew up.  As Farley and Roberts observe, ‘this is the absolutely overlooked ordinary’.  His paintings speak  expressively of the landscapes through which we hurry each day, their elements so familiar that they become almost invisible.

David Rayson, The Shortcut

The Fire, 1999

David Rayson, The Fire, 1999

Another painter mentioned by Farley and Roberts was new to me; David Rayson is another Midlander for whom the edgelands are important.  He has made his reputation with meticulous, deadpan drawings and paintings of urban and suburban scenes, attempting to make sense of his immediate surroundings. ‘I want my work to tell stories, stories which take place all the time and everywhere’, he says; ‘I feel it is the familiar and the everyday that reveal our complex and private relationship with the world around us.’

Like his contemporary George Shaw, Rayson makes precise, almost photorealist images of suburban landscapes based on recollections of childhood and adolescence. Rayson draws and paints images of suburban Wolverhampton where he grew up and continues to live.

David Rayson, From Ash Park to Wednesfield, 2003

David Rayson, From Ash Park to Wednesfield, 2003

Farley and Roberts refer to one set of paintings by Rayson in particular: the series From Ash Park to Wednesfield, in which Rayson leads us along a canal path, past dens and places where he grew up:

There are no people about, just their traces in the old leaden water, the missing railing, the litter, all linked by the implacable path. It follows the backs of houses and passes under a busier road … a forgotten route, bypassed by the world as it speeds up.

Modern Painters – David Rayson from Tamara Pictures on Vimeo.

One important aspect of edgelands territory identified by Farley and Roberts is its mutability. They write that the edgelands feel anything but timeless:

Revisit an edgelands site you haven’t seen for six months, and likely as not there will be a Victorian factory knocked down, a business park newly built, a section of waste ground cleared and landscaped, a pre-war warehouse abandoned and open to the elements.  Such are the constantly shifting sands of edgelands…

There is a poem, ‘Scrap Metal’ in Michael Symmons Roberts’ collection Soft Keys (1993) that hints at some of this:

The whinings of light planes
half wake me.  In my sleep-half
the sky fills with so many
that their wings clack together
like beaks, bringing them down
in the field behind the house.

The rooks in the end trees
racket amongst themselves.
The house shifts on its rust
mattress of scrap metal.
The soil beneath is gorged
with bolts, chains and spokes.

I tear off finger-long strips
of the blue and gold patterned
wallpaper by the bed.  Underneath,
the old paint feels cold.
I decide to paint my room
completely orange – windows too.

The hill in the rooks’ field
is a long barrow for motor-bikes.
Sometimes in the night,
I hear one spark up
like a distant throat,
then settle again.

But, cheek-by-jowl with carefully-managed landscaping is a rough and ready wildness, a sense of entropy and decay, and slip-sliding disorder:

Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists; places where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.

One such place visited by Farley and Roberts is Bidston Moss on the Wirral, ‘one of the most worked-over, altered, landscaped areas of landscape in the country’ in their words. Lying just inland of the Mersey near the northernmost tip of the peninsula, it’s a ‘blank zone’ criss-crossed by railway lines, Mersey Tunnel approach roads and the M53 motorway – and a network of paths.

We entered … by means of a tiny one at the back of the B&Q car park, leading through a gate in the dull, metal-spiked railings into a dark waste ground beneath the flyovers, greeted by undergrowth festooned with a spectacular array of moulded plastics: it seemed as if every colour and variety of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and polyvinyl has landed up here, snarled in the low scrubland and grasses, thrown from the roads overhead or blown from the loading bays to the rear of the superstores. It’s a huge litter trap, an open space surrounded by people passing through very quickly, an unacknowledged or quickly disregarded blindspot. Looking closer, you can see how trefoils and bindweeds have begun to grow back over some of the takeaway cartons and soft-drinks bottles.

In the 1930s the area became a landfill and tipping site for domestic and industrial waste. The mound that built up over the decades became visible from miles away across the water in Liverpool, a hundred-foot-high landmark of rubbish. And then, in the desperate 1980s, a new kind of salvager appeared. Tip scavengers – or ‘totters’ – began to work the site, sifting through the wreckage looking for anything of value: copper, lead, anything of value.

This was Merseyside’s economic nadir, and people were desperate. They were an image from antiquity, or the developing world, the grimy faced rag-picker and bone-collector. There is a photograph of a totter, taken by Peter Marlowe in April 1985.  Marlowe’s tip scavenger is cowled and furtive, a character from the Middle Ages; Brueghel meets Magnum Photo Agency.

Peter Marlowe, Totter, Bidston Moss, 1985

Peter Marlowe, Totter, Bidston Moss, 1985

What it has created is a very twenty-first century melange of low scrubby woods, footpaths and cycle paths, graffitoed bridges and finger posts, pylons and road pillars. Even here, where recent planning has proscribed pathways for all kinds of public use, desire paths are already worn into the earth, cutting off corners, creating short cuts, circuits within circuits. The unplannable edgelands, reasserting themselves.

In the chapter on Gardens, the authors elaborate their thoughts on landscaping – and note that railway embankments largely escape opportunities for orderly landscaping:

From a train entering a city, the rows of domestic back gardens abutting the railway have a familiar kludge of fencing, corrugated iron, doors and particleboard that marks the boundary between one kind of space and another. Escapees are common, seeds finding their way into a new corridor of opportunity, and blown along the tracks by the timetabled movement of trains. The verges easily slip into the category of edgelands. […] The result: a space that nobody takes much responsibility for. And so brambles and bindweed form a kind of slow-motion surf, rolling down the banks into the cutting. In winter, the snarled detritus of the decades is clearly visible, lost footballs and unspooled video- cassette tape, tin cans and plastics of every description, tangled and suspended. Maybe a glacier is a better way of thinking about railway embankments. The litter from both back gardens and train windows is caught like till in the ice, inching slowly towards earth with the general tumble of each season’s growth.

The references to  Ward, Rayner and Marlowe occur in the chapter on Paths, which begins with Farley and Roberts making this observation about ‘desire paths’, a feature of the urban landscape which I particularly enjoy encountering:

Planners love telling us which way to walk. Our built environment – especially our mercantile spaces, shopping centres and the like – is carefully constructed to control footflow and footfall. But we do like to collectively, unconsciously defy them. This is why we see desire paths in our landscape. Desire paths are lines of footfall worn into the ground, tracks of use. They are frowned upon in our national parkland, where they are seen as scars and deviations. PLEASE KEEP TO THE FOOTPATH. You often see desire paths in public gardens and greened city spaces, taking paved paths ‘off road’ into new trajectories, along roadsides and riverbanks. Our edgelands are full of them.

The post-war overspill developments seen on the edges of many of our cities were planned right down to every concrete walkway, subway and pathway. But their green squares and verges were soon criss-crossed with desire paths: a record of collective short-cuttings. In the winter, they turned to sludgy scars that spattered trousers and skirts and clung to shoes, and during hot summers they turned dusty and parched. Once established, they fell into constant use, footpaths which have never entered the literature. These footpaths of least resistance offer their own subtle resistance to the dead hand of the planner. They lead across borders, into open fields and woodland, along drainage brooks, away from the backs of the houses. On a housing estate, a path leading through a hole in a fence is still freighted with possibility. Each one offers promise and danger, whether what lies ahead is known or unknown. Each one has a flavour and mood (or several moods) all of its own. Desire paths are interesting because of the way they come into being: a ‘bottom up’ system against the ‘top down’ methodology of the planner, and proof of human unpredictability. Nobody decides to make a desire path. There is no ribbon-cutting. These are the kinds of paths that begin over time, imperceptibly, gathering definition as people slowly recognise and legitimise the footfall of their peers.

In the essay on ‘Landfill’ the authors observe that ‘rubbish is part of the texture of edgelands’ (reminding me of a line from Leonard Cohen: ‘I’m stubborn as those garbage bags, that time will not decay’). Rubbish, Farley and Roberts write, may be encountered here, often in surreal juxtaposition:

A fly-tipped sofa in a corner of a turnip field; an electric cooker rusting under a bridge arch; a mattress anywhere open to the elements. We see things on their journey through from one category to another, often losing their identities in the process, as in Sean O’Brien’s poem ‘After Lafourge’:

                 – ambitious settees in black frogskin
And minibars missing their castors, the catalogues
Turning to mush, the unnameable objects
That used to be something with knobs on,
And now they live here, by the siding, the fishhouse,
The building whose function is no longer known.

Eileen Inlanding, Edgelands sofa

Eileen Inlanding, Edgelands Sofa

Keith Arnatt, Boiler fuel

Keith Arnatt, Boiler Fuel

On the subject of decomposing rubbish, Farley and Roberts quote a poem by Jean Sprackland, one of a sequence inspired by the East Lancs Road (which, before the M62, was the main route into Liverpool from Manchester; I remember many traverses of the road as a hitch-hiking student in the sixties). Specifically the poems were Sprackland’s response to the detritus thrown or dropped from cars or ‘washed up on the shores of the central reservation’:

The rag-and-bone man would give away a balloon
 in exchange for a broken saucepan
 or a coat riddled by moths.
 My mum boiled the bones clean for soup first
 and kept the best rags for the floor.
 There’s no currency mean enough round here
 for trading in ring-pulls and plastic bottles,
 the loops that hold beer cans together,
 the polystyrene panels a fridge comes packed in.
 You can buy a roll of fifty black sacks for a pound.
 They hang flapping in trees and no one bothers to free them.

One road leads to another.  You know that convoluted bit of motorway where the M5 joins the M6? Have you ever wondered, the authors ask, what lies beneath? Most drivers, they write, are fixed only on the roadside landmarks – ‘the iconic Dunlop building, the muscular, futuristic shapes of the electricity subs station, the RAC Control Centre jutting out over the traffic like the prow of a flagship’.  But underneath this long, extended bridge, this complex of flyovers, is another world. This is the world of Tarkovsky’s dystopian film Stalker: dark, damp, intense and menacing.

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

A painter (not mentioned in the book) who has explored this territory is Shaun Morris. He has produced a series of nocturnes  framed by the motorway pillars and lit by unnatural light of the night-time motorway. They represent a response to the ‘necropolis of motorway pillars’ explored by Farley and Roberts.

Shaun Morris, Edgelands charcoal

Shaun Morris, ‘Edgelands’, charcoal (click to enlarge)

On his blog recently, Morris wrote about returning at night to a favourite location underneath the M5 between Oldbury and West Bromwich with photographer Laura Gale (one of her atmospheric images can be seen at the top of this post):

You enter a very intense, visually rich and murky world, that is at once quite frightening in it’s scale and darkness and with the noise of the traffic above, yet simultaneously beautiful and otherworldly. This otherworldly quality was further enhanced by the still water of the canal and the enormous, crystal clear reflections of the underbelly of the motorway. It looked like you were viewing a giant sunken ship in the water. It was quite deathly and unsettling.

Shaun Morris, Nocturne

Shaun Morris, Nocturne

In the chapter on ‘Wasteland’ I learnt that the buddleia, the archetypal marker of edgelands territory, gets its name from a 17th century botanist, Adam Buddle.  It was a plant then recently imported from Latin America; now it has colonised huge swathes of unchecked, uncultivated land around our towns and cities.  It’s a chapter that begins with buddleia, meanders via the photos of Don McCullin and Julian Trevelyan, the paintings of Michael Landy and edgelands honey, before arriving, inevitably, at TS Eliot: ‘poet of the city’ and representative of how, between the wars, ‘the idea of the wasteland seeped into British art like a brown fog’.

The authors note that Don McCullin, in photos made in the 1960s and 1970s, was “one of the greatest artists of our cities’ wastelands”.  They draw attention, particularly to an image taken in Liverpool 8 in 1961:

Two young boys, about ten years old, stand on a classic piece of wasteland, strewn with bricks, stones, abandoned cars and bits of industrial machinery.  A row of houses stands in the background, some smashed and empty, though one still has painted window frames and curtains.  One boy looks across at the camera, straight at us, but the other is coiled backwards like a longbow at full draw, blurred with speed.  He has a stone in his hand. This could be one of many traditional wasteland games: throwing stones at bottles, throwing stones at windows, throwing stones at passers-by.  But such is the strength of his backward arch that his stone will fly over the bottle, over the coal yard, out of the wasteland, out of Liverpool to drop in the icy shallows of the Irish Sea.

Julian Trevelyan, Rubbish May be Shot Here, 1937

Half a century earlier the painter and photographer Julian Trevelyan was working in Bolton for the Mass Observation project founded by Tom Harrisson and Humphrey Jennings:

He photographed a world of chimneys and rubbish heaps and rubble-strewn earth, of allotments and fences, the industrial dereliction where the people of Bolton existed, isolated figures moving through a desolate landscape or rummaging on tips. But his most striking work was made using collage. Using magazine cuttings, newsprint and paper, he recycled pieces of the ephemeral world to create images of the same dumps and pylon fields, standing pools and factories with their smoking chimneys. Trevelyan’s wastelands are dynamic places, alive as a result of their indeterminacy; their fragments appear caught in a kind of unresolved tension. They suggest to us a new way of looking at an ignored landscape, neither grimy documentary realistic nor entirely whimsical and surreal, but occupying a border territory in between.

Bolton mills, 1937, Julian Trevelyan

Julian Trevelyan, Bolton Mills, 1937

The artist Michael Landy (he’s the guy who famously destroyed all his possessions in Break Down, leaving himself with only the clothes he stood in) was drawn to wasteland, too.  He turned his attention to weeds, the common but overlooked denizens of the edgelands that he preferred to call ‘street flowers’, producing a series of etchings under the title Nourishment.  Here were the flowers that flourish on waste ground and in the cracks in the pavement: groundsel, herb robert, toadflax and creeping buttercup. Like Richard Mabey, he celebrated their names, neglected histories, medicinal qualities and the meanings that people used to attach to them: Canadian Fleabane hitched a boat-ride across the Atlantic to colonise these shores; Oxford Ragwort jumped the wall of the city’s Botanical Gardens to run wild, and hybridised with the native species.

Creeping Buttercup

Michael Landy, Creeping Buttercup, 2002

In ‘Ruins’, the authors meditate on how deeply the ruins of Britain’s industrial past have entered the collective consciousness: a favourite location for TV crime dramas and photo shoots:

Pieces of broken glass click underfoot. Every few paces, the floor becomes spongy with pads of mosses, until eventually you’re standing on a hard and level surface. The air smells cold and musty, uncirculated, tinged with motor oil, mildew, brick dust, black unguents. Somewhere high above there’s the ghost applause of a pigeon, before – a hundred yards or so in front of you – you hear the harsh metallic rattle of big shutters being rolled open. The screech of a car means you can feel the size of the echoing emptiness you’re standing in; the engine draws near, nearer. Even though you’re wearing a blindfold, you know this place. You’ve been inside here before many times.

Tim Edensor 1

Tim Edensor, Industrial Ruins

Farley and Roberts cite the work of geographer Tim Edensor, a connoisseur of industrial ruins (British Industrial Ruins is one of two websites he has dedicated to the subject).  Edensor says:

Most studies of ruins have concentrated on the noble piles of classical antiquity […]. Yet the 20th century has produced more ruins than ever before, whether through warfare or as a remorseless, short term-oriented capitalism turns solid things and places into air, rendering the contents and activities housed within industrial buildings instantaneously obsolete. In Britain, at the end of the 1970’s and through the eighties, the government of Margaret Thatcher allowed ‘market forces’ full reign, promoting an orgy of real estate speculation which produced a reconstructed industrial landscape. But not everywhere was able to capitalise on this economic reconstruction and in many areas, as old industries died, the buildings that housed them lay dormant and empty. This process persists and the material legacy of the industrial revolution, in the form of ruins, can still be found in most British cities.

Tim Edensor 2

Tim Edensor, British Industrial Ruins

Somewhere in the book the authors, appropriately, quote Phillip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’:

But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure.

Something of that poem’s sensibility permeates ‘In Praise of Flaking Walls’ in Michael Symmons Roberts new collection Drysalter:
To be alive is to throw shadows.
No mere ghost could obstruct the light
like we do. This much we know:
that to be made incarnate
is to be as solid as this limewashed wall,
t0 come from rumour, hope, to weight.
We  know  that  sheets  of stucco  crumble
under frost and sun, that every flaw
is nailed by lichen, that all
this is provisional. We know more:
that such beautiful distress – a stone
wall turned to mud and straw –
will be mirrored in our own,
that mountains will give way to snow,
that light will look through us again.

You come across all kinds of stuff in the edgelands – which is perhaps why this book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts ultimately feels a bit like a bag of odds and ends picked up along a path across the terrain. Some of the pieces collected here are brilliant, and taken as a whole I rate this as one of the most stimulating and evocative books that I’ve read recently.  I think Geoff Dyer puts it fairly at the close of his FT review:

Inevitably, some components of the edgelands prove more creatively productive than others. Overall, though, the book can be fairly represented by any particular part of it. The effect is cumulative only in the sense that the pieces mount up. It’s not just that there is no sense of a developing argument; there is an absolute lack – and I mention this as a shortcoming precisely because I am the kind of reader for whom this is not a priority – of any kind of narrative drive. Two-thirds of the way through, it becomes evident that Edgelands is never going to be more than the sum of its parts – but the parts are often terrific.

See also

Paul Farley: Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second


12 thoughts on “The Edgelands: a zone of wild, mysterious beauty

  1. Thanks for the mention! And thank you for a superb post about a fascinating subject. Best wishes Nick

  2. Nick, many thanks for your generous comment about the post, and apologies for mistaking your identity! I’ve amended the reference to your blog in the links so that you are properly attributed.

  3. Wonderful collection of images and thoughts augmenting a book I greatly enjoyed. There are several things for me to follow up on here Gerry. I love Shaun Morris’s work.

    1. Thanks, Diana. I only discovered Shaun Morris googling ‘edgelands’. Quite a few of his blog posts are concerned with the subject.

    1. Thanks for taking time to read this, Shaun. Your ‘Nocturne’ and Laura Gale’s photos added considerable atmosphere – I really like them!

  4. Thanks for the mention Gerry and congratulations on an excellent post. I’ll be coming back to read some more. I wasn’t all that convinced by the Farley/Simmonds book, although I did enjoy it. In my interpretation (of Marion Shoard’s description), the edgelands are “nothing” in between spaces, degraded rural or wild urban, but not power stations, sewage works or pieces of specific infrastructure. Doesn’t really matter though, they are all evocative places. This is the landcape of today, that most people live with but barely notice.

  5. Thank you, Andrew. I suppose the thing about power stations, sewage works, etc is that somewhere in the book Farley & Symmonds make the point that these things have usually been located in the edgelands where they are less likely to be noticed or objected to (I think there might be a class issue there!).

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