Jonathan Cape, £12.99, 266pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Edgelands: Journeys Into England's True Wilderness, By Paul Farley and Michael Symmons
Friday 25 February 2011
Somehow we know immediately the meaning of "edgelands". The word evokes zones where overspill housing estates peter out or factories give way to black fields or scrubland; where unkempt areas become home to allotments, mobile-phone masts, sewage works, cooling towers, dens, places of forgetting, dumping and landfill. This territory had no signifier until the geographer Marion Shoard invented the term "edgelands".
In this book it is made to challenge the conventional duality of urban and rural, most noticeable in landscape writing. For edgelands can be found in many places, inside as well as outside our cities; even, as is here suggested, in the verges and central divide of a motorway. We may drive past such places, or through them, in the security and warmth of an airtight car, but they get to us; they have "edge" and seem to challenge the way we live. This book's authors astutely observe that "Beneath all our worldly dealing, all our getting and spending, run deep, unspoken channels, drumlins of guilt."
Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts are award-winning poets. They began gathering material on this subject long before the intention to write this book took hold. They are aficionados, not tourists in these edgelands, bringing childhood experience as well as adult knowledge to many aspects of this domain, be it canals and bridges, tree houses or retail parks.
They are slightly sniffy of psychogeographers who use a walk as a loose narrative device for some flâneurisms. And unlike WG Sebald, whom Richard Mabey recently criticised for being ecologically unsound in his description of the Suffolk coast and for failing to respect its "otherness", Farley and Symmons Roberts repeatedly snag on exacting detail, such as the red plastic milk crate in a pond. They acknowledge that ponds like these, with its sunken car and unknowable depths, claim the lives of children, but they briskly resist melancholy.
Edgelands may be the domain of the feral, popular with children and lawbreakers, but they are also, the authors claim, places of "possibility, mystery and beauty". As readers we are invited, not to follow a chain of associations, but to stay and look.
This intention to let the terrain speak for itself is welcome. It avoids the tendency to see it as a bleak backdrop to economic, social and political woes. Instead, these unwatched places are shown on the move, prone to sudden changes, subject to negotiation and re-negotiation. The more these two poets travelled about this landscape, the more they admired it.
They identify the buddleia as a significant edgelands' marker, self-seeded, unchecked and on open wastelands offering large stretches of purple. This colour, they suggest, is the perfect complement to the other dominant edgelands tone, the deep red-brown colour of rust. We read how during a recession, if cleared terrain is left unmanaged, further colours appear with rye grass, ragwort, rosebay willowherb, knotgrass, white clover and dandelions. If the wasteland is left still longer, scrub woodland starts to grow. Variations in temperature, soil and human use affect this mixture of indigenous and invasive species, creating a local identity far removed from the creeping homogeneity of the high street.
Farley and Symmons Roberts have chosen to sink their individualities into a single voice. This works well and its conversational tone buttonholes the reader; it is wise, pointed and unfussed. There are sudden riffs on aspects of modern life; on what is done to cars in the edgelands (re-sprayed, re-tyred, re-tuned, or stripped and crushed); on maps, satnav and collisions between communication satellites. We arrive at the curious irony that our reliance on satnav may be causing a "demolition derby" in the sky, where no one understands the rules of the road and everything is travelling very fast.
Much journeying informs this book. It takes us to many parts of England, though there is a strong connection with the North-West. Each chapter is labelled with a single word – Cars, Paths, Dens, Containers, and so on, ending with Airports, Weather and Piers. The observation remains sharp and wry, spiced by outlandish knowledge and well-chosen quotations.
But Farley and Symmons Roberts are not only a reader's tonic; they also shake up our lazy perceptions of an aspect of England that seemed familiar, but remained under-observed and poorly understood. Whether or not these edgelands are "England's true wilderness", they will gain imaginative significance as a result of this gem of a book.
Frances Spalding's 'John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: lives in art' is published by Oxford
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