Edgelands, by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Jonathan Cape, RRP£12.99, 272 pages
Might there be something in the air? A nascent interest in the abandoned, the overlooked, the not-worth-looking-at, or, at its most extreme, the downright blighted? Last year saw the publication of Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Contemporary Britain (Verso). The year before there was Joe Moran’s On Roads (Profile), a “hidden history” of motoring, motorways and service stations. Now, in Edgelands, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts have undertaken a highly inventive survey and celebration of landfill sites, wastelands, sewage plants, retail parks, golf ranges and other features of “England’s true wilderness”.
When did they come into existence, these edgelands? The ones itemised lovingly here tended to come into their own around the edges of the 20th and 21st centuries. Flourishing on the fringes of city-creep and the countryside as ideally imagined, they are either 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”.
Actually, something of the kind was already under way back in my childhood, in the 1960s, in the form of the abandoned train stations and lines that were a legacy of Richard Beeching’s drastic pruning of the rail network. Having pushed back this far it’s useful to recall how Raymond Williams, in his seminal book The Country and the City, was struck by the way that recent laments for a vanished past sounded extremely like something he had encountered years before. That earlier reference had in turn been anticipated by a previous one just beyond the historical horizon, which in turn …
For “two poets in the English lyric tradition” the immediate reference point for their resolutely un-nostalgic enterprise is the Larkin of “Going, Going”; beyond him looms the figure of TS Eliot; in the distant past there is the ghost of John Clare … But other routes and genealogies are also available. For my prosaic, grammar-school self the key figure would be DH Lawrence, who “came into consciousness” near Nottingham in the 1890s, amid “a curious cross between industrialism and the old agricultural England of Shakespeare and Milton”. From Lawrence it’s only a short step back to Dickens’s classic statement of the edgeland anti-aesthetic in Hard Times: “the neutral ground upon the outskirts of town, which was neither town nor country, and yet was either spoiled.”
Williams’s strategy suggests that the recessive image of the idyllic past could be traced all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Farley and Roberts don’t go that far back, though they do suggest that “the Crucifixion was essentially an edgelands story”, and that Golgotha was both “working quarry and city rubbish dump”. This is a smart aside but it risks expanding the idea of edgelands beyond the defining link to industrialisation and its aftermath.
Elsewhere their taxonomy depends on a precisely identified mixture of the specific and the perennial, on the key elements that constitute a den, say: “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.” (Perfect, that “punished”!) 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”.
The opposite of Mass Observation, this style of highly individualised documentation – “self-storage warehouses are like hotels for things” – often has an inbuilt suggestion of surrealism (exactly the combination that Man Ray admired in the work of Eugène Atget, who photographed the so-called “Zone” on the edges of Paris in the early 20th century).
The authors’ drift from ingenious verbal cataloguing to what might be called the tangibly speculative will be familiar to readers of their poetry. Landfill sites become compressed expressions of man-made geology, “the layers of years” leading, ultimately to “the peelings and scrapings of teatimes when Clement Attlee was Prime Minister”.
This kind of dream archaeology seems obviously Farleyesque but pre-echoes of the current book’s topography can also be found in Roberts’s first collection, in poems such as “The Allotment” or “Scrap Metal”. And the pair of them have decided, in any case, to disguise the edges of authorial identity, to merge their distinctive voices into an indivisible and invisible “we”. This first person plural wilfully lingers in areas we prefer to speed though en route to somewhere more scenic, focusing on what, for the rest of us, is “a zone of inattention”. All of this is done at a high level of linguistic resourcefulness – and the scope is impressive too: 28 categories/tropes are examined, though, strangely, there is no discussion of that ecstatically redemptive feature of the post-industrial edgeland, “Parties”.
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.
Geoff Dyer is author of ‘Working the Room: Essays’ (Canongate)