Ranging over the last great fastnesses of England

Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts,

Vintage, £11.20;

Kindle £6.15

Review: Dan MacCarthy

Presented here is a fascinating alternative world to where people predominantly live: namely, villages, towns, cities. The authors are not suggesting that people up sticks and move into what they call the edgelands — although some have. Rather, they are talking here about disused factory sites, towpaths, dens, wasteland, ruins, woodlands and mines. Most people in their busy lives don’t spare such places a passing glance, but the co-authors here — both award-winning poets — reinvent these forgotten places and perform a kind of eulogy of the banal. Belfast poet Derek Mahon’s classic poem on a disused shed in County Wexford is presented as a classic of the ‘genre’.

They quote a myriad of poets and even rock bands whose descriptive musings on these places elevate them above the ordinary. Thus the Fall’s Mark E Smith’s lyrics on container ports are counterpointed with the officialese of the Forestry Commission who wanted to regulate the construction of tree houses by devising ‘a risk-based approach for managers facilitating self-built play structures and activities in woodland settings’. Bet that went down well in the schoolyard.

Landfill sites are classic edgelands. Photographer Keith Arnatt attempts to capture the juxtaposition of beauty and banality. A rusted oil drum conveys a kind of beauty. Why not?

The authors link Arnatt back to landscape artist Samuel Palmer whose paintings of nature cast their subject in a kind of decadent glory. They have contemporary resonance in Leonard Cohen’s line: ‘I’m stubborn as those garbage bags, that time will not decay’.

Warming to their subject in the search for edgelands, the authors extrapolate the conventional, mine the abstract, so that even light and weather are considered edgelands. They make a valid case for each: light seen from military satellites is described as a ‘storm system’ linking conurbations. The overflow of sodium streetlights is one type of light pollution while the glare of security lighting from retail parks “stuns” the environment and interferes with natural rhythms.

Other areas considered edgelands by the authors include piers:

“However much gentrification or modernisation a sun-side pier has received, its belly always looks ancient, decayed, like a beached shipwreck.” The authors visit Brighton pier shortly before it falls into the sea — proof that the edgelands are under threat.

The authors are perhaps stretching things by including masts, principally communications masts. However, a cogent argument is made for these objects which convey streaming thought — the essence of the culture. The bombardment of radio waves is conducted through macrocells (high antennae), microcells (on streets) and picocells (inside buildings). And of course the culture has adapted to conceal them: mobile towers that look like trees. At times, bordering on the science fiction, the subject matter of the book is a vital topic as we negotiate the zones between urban and rural environments.

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