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Book Review: Edgelands by Paul Farley & Michael Symmons-Roberts

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Farley, P. & Symmons Roberts, M. (2011) Edgelands – Journeys into England’s True Wilderness
Vintage ISBN 978 0 099 53977 3

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The zone goes by different names, few of them complimentary. Victor Hugo called it “bastard countryside”. The landscape theorist Alan Berger called it “drosscape”. The artist Philip Guston called it “crapola”. And the environmentalist Marion Shoard called it “edgeland”, which she defined as “the interfacial interzone between urban and rural”. 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.

Robert Macfarlane, writing in The Guardian

Flourishing on the fringes of city-creep and the countryside, they are the residue of a site of prior industry in the process of a slow reversion to nature, or the conversion of the natural to a post-industrial purpose. Some edgelands are a combination of both: a factory goes out of business, falls into ruinous disuse, reverts halfway to nature and is then reclaimed in the form of a business park. Edgelands, then, would seem to be a fairly contemporary phenomenon whose origins are to be found in the Thatcher era. Or maybe things started a little earlier, in the 1970s, when the authors were “comprehensive school children with [their] plastic guns and Chopper bikes.

Geoff Dwyer, writing in The Financial Times

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For Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, the ‘Edgelands’ of the title are the great unnamed and ignored landscapes of modern England: places where “our slipstream has created a zone of inattention” in which, they would argue, all manner of interest and beauty thrive.

Farley and Symmons Roberts are two English poets “in the lyric tradition”, both “edgelands comprehensive schoolchildren in the 1970s”, they set out to explore and document this ruderal idyll, hoping to “do for the neglected edgelands what Coleridge and Wordsworth once did for mountains and lakes”.

Through 28 short essays, each treating a charismatic aspect of the edgelands – “Cars”, “Canals”, “Ruins”, “Mines”, “Hotels”, “Sewage” the duo trace “desire paths” to find beauty and mystery in the rough darkness on the edge of town. The essays describe neatly the places on the margins of our supposedly civilised world that most of us hurry past or overlook or deliberately turn our backs on.

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Their style is poetic, beautiful even, a highly individualised documentation of the ordinary made extraordinary by close observation. A makeshift den for example, becomes:

“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.”

In abandoned factories they are startled by “the ghost applause of a pigeon”; in wasteland there is always an abandoned TV or a “lorry tyre brood[ing] in a dark shallow pool”; “self-storage warehouses are like hotels for things

At its best, this book is a delight: witty and wryly contrarian. Farley and Symmons Roberts have conjured a distinctive style for their chosen region: fond, melancholic and glitteringly acute.  Yet, the book also has an inconsistent, undecided texture that I suppose is entirely in keeping with its subject and as such ‘Edgelands’ a worthy addition to our literature of place.

Sheeps Head a Pound

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