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Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons RobertsEdgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Chivers 2011)

Many people will open this book and think: Ballardian. I certainly thought that. But I also thought: Simplish. That’s an adjective for something reminiscent of the Telegraph columnist Peter Simple, who wrote about the “mysterious urban poetry” of litter-choked ponds and abandoned power-stations. So do Paul Farley and Michael Roberts. They write about literal poetry too, quoting Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes to illustrate their ideas about the places that exist on the edges of towns and cities, that service our civilization while being ignored, overlooked or despised: industrial estates, cooling towers, rubbish dumps, mines, reservoirs, sewage works, recycling plants, warehouses, self-storage depots, airports, conference centres, and so on.

These are places that are often deserted by night or visited rarely by day, that sometimes shelter wild animals, birds and plants, preserve out-dated machinery and out-moded fashions, provide spaces for roaming children, inspire artists, poets and writers. J.G Ballard was one of those writers: Crash (1973) is a book about edgelands, both literal and psychological: airport hotels, mecho-fetishism. But Ballard was writing about edgelands from the beginning of his career, returning again and again to crumbling buildings and obsessive lives:

Outside his room, steps sounded along the corridor, then slowly climbed the stairway, pausing for a few seconds at every landing. Bridgman lowered the memo-tape in his hand, listening to the familiar tired footsteps. This was Louise Woodward, making her invariable evening ascent to the roof ten storeys above. Bridgman glanced at the timetable pinned to the wall. Only two of the satellites would be visible, between 12.25 and 12.35 a.m., at an elevation of 62 degrees in the south-west, passing through Cetus and Eridanus, neither of them containing her husband. Although the sighting was two hours away, she was already taking up her position, and would remain there until dawn. (“The Cage of Sand”, 1962)

So this from Edgelands is like one of Ballard’s short stories come to life:

One of the strangest encounters we had in the edgelands was following a visit to a breaker’s yard on an industrial estate near Morecambe. … We found a man standing by his car looking into the evening sky with binoculars. The sky to the west was still a bright indigo, touched with reds and turquoises, the last embers of a typically spectacular west-coast sunset. But this man wasn’t interested in sunsets. Or birds.

He had come to watch for an Iridium flare. Iridium satellites are a constellation of relatively small communications satellites, set in low earth orbit for over a decade. They have highly reflective, silver-coated panels that can catch the sun’s light, producing a reflection tens of kilometres wide at the earth’s surface, and if you’re standing at the right spot, they’re often easily visible. (“Cars”, pg. 26)

You can buy an iPhone app that tells you where and when to watch for one. The authors stand with the man and see “a slow and languorous brightening … flashing suddenly into brilliance for a moment, before fading away.”

Ballard would also have liked the section about “golf driving ranges”, where people pay to hit balls out into an open space. This “silent ritual” is odd by day, even odder after dark: as rain pelts down on a corrugated roof above the club-swingers, “out there, slow white bullets trace an arc across the sky, spinning right to left or left to right, crossing each other in the air. Six, seven, ten at a time, out into the night” (pg. 299).

An abandoned factory

An abandoned factory

The book is full of oddness like that, describing strange situations and surreal juxtapositions, mixing obscure history and miniature travelogue, introducing you to artists and writers you’ll want to investigate further, celebrating technology and questioning it. The writing could easily have been pretentious and Guardianista, but it never is. Perhaps that’s because Farley and Roberts are both northern and both poets. That doesn’t guarantee graceful or down-to-earth writing, but you’ll find both here. They can discuss horror vacui and industrial pallets with equal ease, celebrate the pleasures of tree-houses and the beauty of wild flowers.

And not-so-wild ones. One section I particularly enjoyed was their description of how English cities, homogenized by big business, are still distinguished by the flora that grows in their edgelands. Bristol is a “Buddleia city”, Swansea is “dominated by Japanese knotweed”; Sheffield is home to garden escapees like “feverfew and goat’s rue, tansy, soapwort and Michaelmas daisies”, Swindon has “extensive stands of St John’s wort, with wild carrot, welted thistle, great burnet, crow garlic and ploughman’s spikenard” (pg. 185-6). But in every city there are “branches of Starbucks, Carphone Warehouse, WH Smith, Dixons, Currys and McDonald’s”.

That commercial list becomes a refrain, a banal repetition heightening the richness and strangeness of the flower-names filling the spaces in-between. But then they’re talking about CCTV or floodlighting and finding something rich and strange there too. I learnt a lot from this book and re-thought some of my ideas. I enjoyed it a lot too. If you’re a fan of J.G. Ballard or Peter Simple, so might you.

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