Lee Langley

You’d never believe what goes on in the Sainsbury’s car park

Gareth Rees sees murder, hauntings, dogging and adultery outside supermarkets up and down Britain. But is he off his trolley?

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Car Park Life: A Portrait of Britain’s Unexplored Urban Wilderness

Gareth E. Rees

Influx Press, pp. 240, £9.99

Psychogeography takes many forms: Sebaldian gravitas, Will Self’s provocative flash and dazzle and Iain Sinclair’s jeremiads for lost innocence. Gareth Rees explored east London’s edgelands in his hallucinatory Marshlands. Now, with Car Park Life, he reveals an urban wilderness hiding in plain sight: ‘It is Morrisons in Hastings that lights the fire of my obsession. Not the supermarket itself but the space outside: the car park.’

Strange, often violent stuff happens here: murder, hauntings, sex, from dogging to adultery. Late-night improvised race tracks spring up, where petrolheads compete in hair-raising skid contests, spurred on by whooping spectators. Even in opening hours the clandestine flourishes — who notices what goes on in cars outside Sainsbury’s? Bringing a whole new meaning to cutting-edge retail, a drug dealer stabs one of his customers five times outside an Asda and flees, while police seize £3,000 worth of cocaine. Illicit trade is rife — ‘even cars are sold in car parks’. (No royal skeletons dug up so far: Richard III was found in a municipal parking space in 2012.)

Rees’s passion began with that Damascene moment outside Morrisons when he realised ‘a bleak parking lot could hold as much mystery and allure as a mountain or lakeside’. This is when ‘the car park nonsense’, as his family called it, took over his life. The book is both a celebration and a lament: pain and loss lurk beneath the eccentric comic surface (think Detectorists). There’s a sweet lunacy to his adventures.

‘In an ideal scenario we’d pitch a tent on the nearest roundabout and dine on roasted rat, poached from the traps behind Pizza Hut… stare up at the night sky, obscured by light pollution, sit around a bonfire of pallets.’ Who could ask for more? Rees doesn’t duck the commercial ugliness, the squalor, rusting debris, litter, but he has a transforming eye: trucks parked round a rain puddle look like elephants at a jungle watering hole. And he’s open to the delight of discovery.

In a Plymouth car park, beyond a B&Q and KFC, he finds a pebble-lined, dried up stream — a leat, built in 1591 to end a town drought — an innovative engineering feat masterminded by the mayor, Sir Francis Drake. Rees pictures the scene: Drake on horseback at the grand opening ceremony, riding ahead of the foaming stream of water ‘like an equine surfer’, as the crowd cheers, until he reaches the dry area where market carts are waiting — ‘the cart park’.

He treads a fine line: obsession can be dangerous. Along the way, his marriage collapses; the reader can see it coming before he does. And occasionally the anorak takes over, tugging us into trainspotting territory with too much information. But it’s a small price to pay for the highlights: in six spirited pages he manages to chronicle 4,000 years of history and the changing life and times of a community. A young metalworker arriving from the Swiss Alps, skilled in bronze and gold, found fame and ended up ceremonially buried as the Amesbury Archer. A retail megastructure now looms over the original burial place, flanked by a giant statue of a kneeling man — ‘the ancestor’ — hands outstretched to the sky, an attempt to link a clutch of 21st-century fast-food franchises to a simple, ancient people. Ah, the irony.

For Rees, ‘magic, weirdness and terror run through every particle, every atom of the universe’, and overlooked, mundane places fuel his imagination. There’s affection here and an ever-present awareness of human absurdity. The supermarket car park is a foreign country: they do things differently there, and Rees brings it to life in an engaging blend of memoir, history and surreal imaginings: Tesco as heart of darkness — but with more laughs.