Edgelands: the spotter’s guide

Updates: this has popped up on R4 a couple of times and I’ve loved it each time – a true classic. See also Towards a taxonomy of edgelands literature and Tate Britain’s Edgelands & outliers course. For how to present your edgeland, see My Pomona.

I’ve touched on edgelands before, but now I’ve read the book. I bought Edgelands: journeys into England’s true wilderness (2011, Amazon; reviews by (in) Geoff Dyer (FT) | Robert Macfarlane (Gdn) | Ken Worpole (New Statesman) | Marion Shoard (Observer) | Tom Fort (Telegraph)Karl Whitney (3:am Magazine) by ‘northern poets’ Paul Farley and Michael Symmonds Roberts back in October 2013 when I first started looking into nature writing, but this one is a tad different. Divided into 28 chapters each looking at a single element found in the edgelands, it’s almost a spotter’s guide.

Of an age with the two authors, who grew up in the suburbs of Liverpool and Manchester in the early 1970s, I spent my childhood on the edge of Edinburgh, with the familar edgeland tropes of a nearby main road, an airport and a plethora of golf courses. The book reminds me of the first stop I took on this blogging journey, John Zeaman’s Dog walks man, where Pete the poodle leads John out of the comfort zone of the suburbs into more unexpected territory. Trying to resist both “the pull of nostalgia…[and] producing more ‘ruin porn'” meant that the book came about “thematically, in categories” (source), leading one LibraryThing reviewer to comment that it could have done with more of the personal, but as a series of short pieces, in places taking lyrical flight, it works for me.

Robert Macfarlane describes the book as “wryly contrarian” – not least for being a two hander. By aiming to “break out of the duality of rural and urban landscape writing” and avoiding using the edgelands as a “short cut to misanthropy”, he finds it “re-performs the thought-crimes of which [the authors] accuse traditional landscape romantics”, while Karl Whitney asks whether “just because the edgelands were often the places where we grew up, should they be sites of reminiscence – nostalgia, even?” He finds “the book runs the risk of elevating [the edgelands] to the level of the type of generic and interchangeable space that psychogeography had attempted to combat”.

Edgelands are a thing in English literature of place, with the term usually attributed to Marion Shoard (PDF):

The netherworld neither urban nor rural which has taken over great swathes of land on the urban fringe. The rough, unkempt wasteland of the edgelands shares many of the characteristics of wild land in urban areas…

Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland. All these heterogeneous elements are arranged in an unruly and often apparently chaotic fashion against a background of unkempt wasteland frequently swathed in riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic.

Crucially, they are “the story of our age”, and like every good story, inspire and provoke – see the article and comments on Skyliner’s Pomona article in the Guardian, and the lovely My Pomona. Attempts to “sanitise or otherwise neuter the edgelands” may sound laudable enough, but frequently tame the unique into something less evocative and less interesting.

The wilderness is much closer than you think. Passed through, negotiated, unacknowledged: the edgelands – those familiar yet ignored spaces which are neither city nor countryside – have become the great wild places on our doorsteps.

The neither/nor aspect evokes the suburb, sliding quickly into the edgelands, the “space left over after planning”. Edgelands are “not meant to be seen, except perhaps as a blur from a car window, or as a backdrop to our most routine and mundane activities”. This can be what makes them real in an over-planned world.

Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists.

It’s not for nothing that the first chapter is on the car -“edgelands are a driver’s dream – few queues, long, straight roads and ample parking – including the authors’ first off piste musing, the idea of a modified satnav or edgenav with a facility for identifying shipping containers, graffiti on bridge overhangs, landfill sites, blank unnamed pools and routes away from main arterial roads. They imagine walking the abandoned roads of the future, such as the M1 Way, with its service stations converted into hostels.

Some more spots:

  • Containers: domestic storage centres, hotels for things, your own container, anchored in a solid, watertight building, budget hotels with rooms as small and bare as containers, modular housing…everything can be contained
  • Gardens: the ‘reverse view’ you get from a train, passing through cities patterned on roads; trains afford us the best views of allotments, a secret landscape often invisible from our main roads
  • Bridges: “nameless bridge…carries a minor road across six lanes of motorway”; sometimes a name will stick, and sometimes a whole history and mythology, too
  • Wasteland: sites “either lying completely fallow or in the process of being redeveloped…the dreaded landscaping, the overwhelming urge is to tidy up, to make everywhere look like pleasing-on-the-eye parkscape”
  • Ruins: “places which exist in a hiatus between the end of one industrial era and potential future development…they become non-places, quite literally off the map…they atrophy because their blood supply is cut off”, offering a collage of time rather than the heritage industry’s freeze frame, reordered, partial and tidied up
  • Power: and other essential, invisible functions; “power stations are brutal, dirty and ugly, eyesores spoiling the view”, but up close they can be truly appreciated for what they are
  • Hotels: “these places are never empty”, but somehow they are never full either; with many people in a party of one, others in a half life between work and leisure with the lounge as breakout room
  • Retail: motorways with a “boulevard of retail, car showrooms, tile centres, leather worlds, carpet empires and fast food bars”
  • Business: “Nothing in a business park is public. There are no parks or playing fields, no common ground…No one visits without an appointment, because no one is just passing…when the ‘doughnut effect’ has gone into reverse, the silence of business parks will be broken.”
  • Lights: what does the edgelands night look like? Meatpaste.
  • Airports: “Plane-spotting, unlike trainspotting, is a quintessentially edgelands pastime. As boys growing up in the Seventies, we remember the thrill of visiting an airport. But we never flew.”

Is the edgeland a transitory phase and place, less and less likely to be found in a borderless landscape lacking the essence of either the urban or the rural?

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