Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts‘ book Edgelands – about the aesthetics and psycho-geography of forgotten interzones of “waste” land on the edges of our towns and cities – has been an inspiring and thought-provoking book of the week on Radio 4: Edgelands – R4 Book of the Week
Anyone who watched Coast a couple of years ago will have been struck by the aerial images of containers lined up at Tilbury docks and the peculiarly pleasing Legoland look of it. Edgelands is a poetic reappraisal of places like container ports, industrial estates, power stations, storage facilities. One of the writers remembers the assumptions he grew up with – life was a game of “the one who dies with the most things wins.” This acquisitive society produced the Edgelands, as much as it produced the areas we actually like to spend time in. They jar because we prefer a strict urban / rural dichotomy. They don’t fit, so we don’t see them; or if we do, we don’t like what we see.
Mark E Smith of The Fall was onto this 30 years ago, with his scabrous commentary on our decaying industrial wastelands, Grotesque. He brought to scatchy life an uncomfortable, unpretty Britain of container drivers, cash ‘n’ carries, debt-ridden estates and hopeless government schemes. It could be the soundtrack to this book.
But Farley and Symmons Roberts – at least in the extracts I’ve caught so far – bring a contemplative, calm pace to their wanderings in the wilderness in place of Smith’s acidic rasps. In doing so, they awaken us to some wonderfully absurd truths about what goes on around us unnoticed. They look at containers on the docks and think of where they have been: the Barbies or iPods inside them on epic voyages from China, sailing across remote icy oceans few humans ever see.
If their aesthetic sense seems at times downright cussed – are all these de-industrialised places so full of beauty? – it’s not as perverse as it initially sounds. I took my son to the site of a Bronze Age hill fort in Oxfordshire a couple of weeks ago to fly his kite. Beautiful countryside all around, but it overlooked what I regarded as the ugly stain of Didcot Power Station, with its vast cooling towers. My 7-year-old, though, didn’t see it like that. The view of the countryside meant little to him; but he marvelled at the human-made shapes and emissions of the power station.
Listening to Edgelands, I remembered that I used to see things like he does too – and I’ve lost that. My appreciation of the countryside, which is now so important to me, is only one way of seeing beauty in the world and, without further thought, it can close others down. When my son responds to striking shapes and forms, he notices things I don’t see any more. Far from being some pretentious art school construction, Edgelands‘ manifesto to see the beauty in the marginal spaces of Britain gets back to a child’s eye view. A breath of fresh air, even if it has industrial pollutants billowing through it.