Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

I went to the Bluecoat on Thursday evening to hear Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, authors of Edgelands, talk about how their book took shape, read extracts and answer questions from the audience that had packed out the performance space.  They form a great double act, these two northern poets, with Farley sometimes playing the cheeky scouser to Symmons Roberts’ thoughtful and elegantly rounded phrasing.

Edgelands explores the wildness on the edge of town – those liminal spaces passed through on the way somewhere else, ignored and untended places where an overlooked England exists.  The edgelands is the theme of the Bluecoat’s current Soft Estate exhibition to which this presentation was a complementary event.

Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director at the Bluecoat, began by introducing Farley and Roberts, both of whom are successful writers from the North West.  Paul was born in Liverpool in 1965 and (this was news to me) began by studying art – first at Mabel Fletcher College on Smithdown Road – a site now occupied, Bryan noted, by a branch of Tesco.  He’s published several successful volumes of poetry, as well as writing and presenting many radio dramas, documentaries and features. He is Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.  Michael was born in 1963 in Preston, Lancashire, UK, and spent his childhood in Lancashire before moving south with his family to Newbury in the early 70s.  He has published two novels and several volumes of poetry: his 6th collection – Drysalter – won the 2013 Forward Prize and Costa Poetry Prize, and was short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize.   He is Professor of Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The pair began by launching into a slideshow to illustrate the origins of their collaboration on Edgelands.  The first slide up featured this cover of the 1950s Ladybird book What to Look for in Summer.

Ladybird Summer cover

‘For an entire childhood we wondered where the countryside actually was.’

CF Tunnicliffe’s cover illustration presents a classic image of the English landscape, imprinted on the conciousness of a generation of children, since these were the books by which we learned to read and know the world.  But, as Paul bluntly put it, as children they would wonder, ‘Where the fuck was this England?’  As the pair wrote in Edgelands:

For along 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, each had the experience of being able to follow paths across waste ground and along the fringes of housing estates to easily find themselves on the edge of farmland. But none of it ever felt like the countryside of the Ladybird books.

What they found instead were places of ‘possibility, mystery and beauty’: unwatched places in which children  and teenagers felt at home, built dens (in what was, according to Farley, ‘the golden age of den-building’) and pursued a largely feral existence.


Paul Farley’s Netherley. ‘We were forever going on expeditions, sorties into a wilderness of drainage brooks, arable fields, sewage farms, disused railways: in today’s A–Zs, the white pages, the blank edges’.

Paul and Michael went on to talk about how they came to write the book, and how it gradually evolved into the form that it eventually took.  Paul recalled that the germ of the book came when they were discussing the essay by Marion Shoard, the eco-geographer, in which she 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’.  Paul recalled that Shoard had concluded with a call to arms:

It is time for the edgelands to get the recognition that Emily Brontë and William Wordsworth brought to the moors and mountains and John Betjeman to the suburbs. They too have their story. It is the more cogent and urgent for being the story of our age.

As poets in the English lyric tradition, they were fired up by this and decided to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Shoard.  Michael intervened at this point to make the observation that this all came about in a bar somewhere.

We decided to celebrate the vigour and diversity of these places that were so familiar to us, neither city nor country, wild or not wild, but the unnamed, ignored places which have a strange beauty all of their own. We planned research trips were planned to exotic edgelands locations.

Michael and Paul had often talked about these places – their first, childhood landscapes – before they were ever referred to as ‘edgelands’. In fact, they had both already written about them separately, either in poetry or prose. So our interests converged, and giving them a name just galvanized the whole thing. They began gathering material on the subject long before the decision to write the book was made. Apart from reinforcing each other’s interest and excitement, it was all pretty haphazard to begin with.

They talked about editing an anthology of edgelands writing, commissioned prose and poetry from writers they knew. They mulled over the idea of curating an exhibition of edgelands art having found that visual artists had been among the pioneers investigating the terrain (along with psycho-geographers, and poets such as Sean O’Brien, Jean Sprackland and Philip Larkin (who wrote, in ‘Church Going’ of ‘Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky, /A shape less recognisable each week, A purpose more obscure’).

But the more they talked, the more they came to realise that they wanted to author something together – in prose. Appropriately, they would meet at Tebay Services on the M6 in Lancashire. They eventually decided that the book could be shaped, not as the travelogue of a walk through the edgelands, but thematically, in categories, along the lines of books like Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, Roland Barthes’ Mythologies or George Perec’s Species of Space.

So, they explained, Edgelands came to be co-authored, editing one another as they went along, exchanging emails and computer files of their drafts. They decided to sink their individualities into a single voice – the ‘we’ of the book’s narrative, rather than, for instance, authoring alternate chapters.  As the book took shape they continued to meet at motorway service stations. The first chapter they completed was the one called ‘Water’ – which Paul and Michael then read for us, each voice alternating a page or two at a time.  This is Paul and Michael reading the chapter in a video made at Newcastle University:

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts reading from Edgelands at Newcastle University on Vimeo

I could listen to these two reading aloud for ever. It’s got a lot to do with something that they alluded to in the question and answer session afterwards: their deep-rootedness in the North-West, richly revealed in their voices.  Although, they said, they had explored the edgelands in various parts of the country, in the book they decided to limit the account to the Midlands and the North-West, avoiding London (which had, after all, already had its fair share of scrutiny).  Listening to Paul and Michael read I was made aware, far more than when I had been following text on the page, of how much of the book’s prose comes close to poetry.

So Edgelands was shaped by memories of the places here in the North-West where Paul and Michael have lived,  worked and known all their lives, with the result that many of the most memorable passages hinge on images from childhood memory, details such as a red plastic milk crate in a pond. Responding to one particular question, they acknowledged that during the writing of the book they had found themselves consciously resisting the pull of nostalgia (just as, when writing about aspects of the edgelands terrain, they had tried to resist producing more ‘ruin porn’).

They were asked what it us that fascinates about the edgelands.  Paul was quick to point out that this is an interest not everyone shares – ‘you either get it or you don’t’ – while Michael recalled their hilarious encounter with the  receptionist in a pallet yard:

‘A book?’

‘Yes, a book about the edgelands’.

‘The what?’

‘Pallets, it’s about pallets.’

‘What do you want to do?’

‘Look at the pallets in the yard.’

‘Just look at them?’

‘Well, photograph them and write about them.’

‘I can’t let you take photographs.’

‘Why not?’

‘I can’t authorise that.  You’ll have to spea to head office if you want to do that.’

‘We’ll just write about them then.’

‘What d’you mean?’

‘We’ll just look at them and write about them’.

‘Will you need to sit down?’

‘No, we can write standing up, thank you.’

The fascination which the edgelands exert for some of us has a lot to do, I think, with the sense that they constitute a zone of freedom, beyond restriction and out of sight of authority.  This is why children and teenagers tend to be the main colonisers of the edgelands, with their dens, graffiti and the litter of illicit smoking and drinking sessions.  (It’s also why fly-tippers and litter-louts like the edgelands, too.)

Farley and Roberts reminded us of another reason why the edgelands are interesting:they cannot be pinned down.  This is a terrain of almost limitless variability: compare the strict regimentation of the business park (where ‘anyone on foot is suspicious’) with the wildness of the edgeland’s wastelands, sites of decay which have a strange beauty all of their own.  And the edgelands never stay the same.  They are constantly in a state of flux, so that the litter-strewn site of an abandoned factory or patch of wasteland will turn out on a visit not much later to have been landscaped or transformed into a business park.

There is now a growing body of artistic work interrogating the edgelands terrain in poetry, painting and photography.  In writing Edgelands, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts have challenged the conventional duality of urban and rural that was a marked feature of writing on landscape. Their book reveals how edgelands can be found in many places, in the heart of our cities as well as on their fringes, and even along the verges of a motorway. I was struck by Paul’s observation – as he described how we drive past, or through, such places in a car – that at life-changing moments (such as a car crash, first kiss, or the birth of a child) the memory lays down ‘a thick, multi-tracked record’ that slows down time and preserves the experience.  Whereas, driving the same piece of road each day and seeing the same scenes pass at the edge of our vision as we speed onward, lays down a memory track so thin it lacks all detail. The edgelands may hold strong childhood memories, but they are also places where ‘our slipstream has created a zone of inattention’.

Next: we venture into the wilderness of north Wirral’s edgelands.

See also

6 thoughts on “Wildness on the edge of town: an Edgelands encounter with Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

    1. Cheers, Ronnie. Well, one day we’ll meet in real life and speak words out loud to each other! (BTW – there’s a passage about edgelands honey in the book).

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