Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

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Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A poetic look at that land which is not quite urban, nor yet countryside. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224089029

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Around the middle of the last century and earlier, books about the English countryside seemed very much in vogue. H.V. Morton's In Search of England and associated titles spring readily to mind, but there were a wealth of others, by authors who seemed intent on discovering the land for themselves, sometimes anxious to document it before it was gone.

This book is in a sense the 21st century equivalent. Its subject is not exactly the wide open spaces, such as are still left, but the 'wild' areas, the territory which is not quite urban yet not exactly countryside. Farley and Roberts are poets, and not surprisingly they both have a very poetical turn of phrase, not to say insight, in discussing everything they see. Even in such a potentially sterile subject as cooling towers, they can still write of looming grey elephantine hulks [that] designate the in-betweenness of the landscape you are passing through. While reading this book I was occasionally reminded of one or two of Betjeman's short travelogue films, and there are parallels with a similar vision several decades on in these pages. We also have a reference to W.H. Auden, who came up with what was probably the first practical edgelands itinerary in 1954, roughly from Heathrow to Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Crewe, onto the Yorkshire Dales and the north Pennines.

The authors discuss an England in the process of reclaiming quiet spaces from the increasingly encroaching built-up, tarmaced-over land which used to be countryside, from their perspective of having grown up on the edge of Liverpool and Manchester respectively, in the early 1970s, when they could walk for only a short distance and find themselves lost in back lanes or waste ground, be it following the perimeters of a golf course, or a path leading through scratchy shrubland.

A little surprisingly, they start off in the first chapter with cars as a defining characteristic of these edgelands, though it soon heads into a depressing saga of being clamped after parking on a double yellow line, paying a huge fee and getting the hell out, or alternatively the fate which awaits most of them – in a crusher's yard. It comes as something of a relief to move on from such subjects as sewage, landfill and containers to allotments, lofts and buddleias, or butterfly bushes, imported from South America and self-seeded across large swathes of unchecked, uncultivated land around towns and cities, not to mention gardens. Would summer be the same without the buddleia and the butterflies it attracts, even on the wasteland they describe close to the centre of Wolverhampton? The same city, by the way, is renowned for its canal banks, car body shops and engineering firms. Apparently, the Midlands' success in producing heavy metal bands can be credited largely to the members of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin being brought up to the sound of the car industry with its sheets of steel being stamped and hammered into shape by vast machinery.

There are other little unexpected gems. A chapter on ruins discusses the places where the air smells cold and musty, floors are spongy with pads of mosses until you find a hard and level surface. Ruins lead to rubble, which always seem to include at least one old TV or computer monitor. The late Irish poet John O'Donohue, who lived in a remote cottage in the west of Ireland, put his old monitor on the drystone wall at the end of his garden to punish it.

This is an unusual book. Above, I mentioned Morton's titles and those which followed them. In recent years there have been several books by writers and commentators going in search of England as it is today, of which those by Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux spring readily to mind. This falls into a similar category, yet it is very different – it's basically about the places which are there but which are easily overlooked, perhaps because they are always with us and therefore taken for granted. I suspect the authors wrote it because they wanted us to look at these strange places in a new way. As far as I'm concerned, in these 260-odd pages they have certainly succeeded.

Our thanks to Jonathan Cape for sending a copy to Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this, may we recommend titles by two authors mentioned about, Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, and Paul Theroux's The Kingdom by the Sea.

Buy Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts at Amazon.com.


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