Ian Thomson

Nostalgie de la boue

In the late 1960s I grew up in the London borough of Greenwich, which in those days had a shabby, post-industrial edge.

Nostalgie de la boue
Text settings

Edgelands: Journeys into England’s Wilderness

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Cape, pp. 264, £

In the late 1960s I grew up in the London borough of Greenwich, which in those days had a shabby, post-industrial edge. Behind our house on Crooms Hill stood a disused London Electricity Board sub-station. Broken glass crunched underfoot and buddleia grew amid the fly-tipped junk. I went there chiefly to shoot at pigeons and set fire to things. Tea chests went up in a satisfying orange whoosh; I was mesmerised. One day, dreadfully, the LEB building burned down after I neglected to extinguish embers. The fire-fighters flashed a spectral white and blue, I remember, from the fire-engine’s beacon. I could no longer go there unnoticed.

I was reminded of that episode while reading Edgelands, by the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. The book celebrates the scrublands, sewage works, brownfield sites and silted canals where urban meets pastoral in contemporary England. These ‘drosscapes’ have been insufficiently chronicled in our literature today, object the authors. Iain Sinclair, whose novels and travelogues chart the industrial sumplands and riverscapes of London, is too ‘misanthropic’ a spirit for Farley and Roberts, who hope to find beauty (rather than a jagged ugliness) in our urban hinterlands.

The boondocks of Liverpool and Manchester, where the authors grew up in the 1970s, form the book’s core. Among the Mancunian ‘edgelands’ dearest to them are the viaducts and disused silk mills along the Macclesfield Canal. In such places one can still find the ‘overlooked England’ they cherish. Along the way, the authors dilate knowledgeably on the English bands and singers who have apostrophised these edgelands, chief among them Manchester’s proto-punk collective The Fall (one might add the Sheffield-born Jarvis Cocker, whose hymns to burned-out Trebor mint factories and detergent-tainted waterways exude a dour melancholy).

The literary travelogue, with elements of history, anthropology, personal experience and quest, is nevertheless a difficult genre. In the absence of conventional plot, the challenge is to create a forward momentum, something at which Richard Mabey in his marvellous book The Unofficial Countryside (an acknowledged influence) demonstrated his skill. At times, Farley and Roberts allow their narrative to stagnate. Hectoring asides on the nature of urban life (‘Rather than escaping to the forests of the Highlands, park your car at Matlan and have a walk around the edgelands woods’) begin to grate. And sometimes the writing out-purples Walter Pater. Retail parks apparently are ‘subtle in their metaphors of cornucopian abundance’. Crikey.

On the whole, though, Edgelands delights with its sly, impish wit and observation. It’s a nonsense, the authors claim, that poets are supposed to be unable drive. Driving is fundamentally a poetic activity, ‘ritualistic, solipsistic, liberating’. Les Murray, John Berryman and Seamus Heaney have all at different times written poems in praise of the road, even of roadkill.

Which parts of Edgelands were written by Farley and which by Roberts is unclear, as the book is co-authored anonymously. The joint authorship works well, though, as it allows the poets a Gilbert-and-George-like creative parity. If anything, they remain rather too beholden to the 1970s of their childhoods, when car-crushers’ yards and abandoned warehouses of the sort that featured in The Sweeney and other TV cop shows provided hours of truant fun. In today’s mass uni-culture dominated by the X-Box and computer, teenagers are more likely to experience edgelands on their screens, and stay at home.

Out of curiosity, while reading this book I scanned Google Earth for the Greenwich wasteland which I had inadvertently helped to burn down all those years ago. It had been turfed over with sleak-looking tennis courts. No trace of my younger, fire-starting self survives, fortunately, but I know something the tennis-players may not: once, not long ago, this had been edgelands territory.