Edgelands, by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Edgelands - book coverEdgelands:

is enticingly subtitled: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness and is an exploration of the in-between places on the edge of our towns.

The book is arranged into chapters, each with a punchy one-word title:

Cars, Dens, Containers, Retail, Pallets, Sewage, etc.

After an introductory section, the bulk of the book is effectively a collection of essays.  Any one of the chapters could be read in isolation, or the sequence could be read in random order.

With two authors there are some subtle stylistic differences between sections within the book. The writers have deliberately decided not to credit each section, but I think I could tell the two apart. Although both write in a dense, layered style, one is somewhat easier to read than the other. (But don’t let my last sentence put you off. The book is very readable.)

What I liked about the book.

I liked the arrangement – the structure – of the book. The division into discrete chapters, each one with its own theme, meant I could dip in and out, read a chapter here, pick it up again and read another chapter there. And select those topics that particularly interested me for a second reading.

The writing was exceptionally good. Intelligent observations, interwoven into a text that covered physical descriptions, historical context and personal stories. Both of the authors also write poetry, and I think this was obvious in the careful crafting of their prose.

As a walker, I found the subject matter wonderfully interesting. In fact, I read the section on ‘Containers’ just before I walked through Avonmouth on my coastal trek. (Avonmouth is a perfect example of edgeland territory.) I confess I hadn’t been looking forward to this walk, anticipating a grim slog through semi-industrial docklands. But, with this book as my coincidental companion, I saw the place in a different light and ended up really enjoying the experience

Some of the content was thought-provoking. I hadn’t considered, for example, that the art of den building was dying out. But I think it’s true. In fact, I rarely see children playing on their own these days. And a den built with the help of dad isn’t really a den at all, is it? So childhood has changed and in our attempts to keep our children safe we may be depriving them of important self-exploratory, non-adult time.

I particularly liked the analysis of the ebb and flow of ‘stuff’. The goods we buy are transported into, stored within and shipped out of the edgelands to our shops. And, after we’ve worn it out or grown tired of the sight of it, the stuff we throw away returns to the edgelands for further processing and disposal. I saw all this on my walk through Avonmouth: the docks and cranes, the storage yards and warehouses, the distribution infrastructure,  the rubbish dumps and reprocessing plants – the end of the journey for our ‘stuff’. It really made me think about our consumer-driven, throw-away, economy.

What I didn’t like about the book.

I found some of the prose hard to read. There is nothing wrong with complex sentences and extensive vocabulary, but sometimes I was wishing for the occasional light-hearted anecdote or shorter sentence, just to keep the pace going.

Although the book started with a good introductory chapter, there was no corresponding summary chapter at the end. We finish with a section on seaside piers (and a beautiful description of the appeal of walking under the pier supports – a place I love to be). But then the book just ends. Shame. I would have liked a final look-back or overview of what had been covered and, perhaps, of what was missing.

I have always found the semi-industrial areas on the edges of our town strangely interesting. This book covers those hinterlands, and also encompasses the shopping centres, retail parks, and business hotels that similarly lurk on the outskirts of our urban areas.

But I would disagree  with the title chosen by the authors. ‘Edgelands’ suggests something sharp. Some definite division. An obvious boundary. Something clear-cut and… well, something ‘edgy’, I suppose. But I don’t think the ‘edgelands’ of this book are so clearly delineated. They exist in a fuzzy zone between town and country, in a no-man’s land, within territory as yet undeveloped, neither rural nor strictly urban.

So, given the lack of clear boundaries, I would call these areas something more in keeping with their nebulous existence. Hinterlands? In-between-lands? No, the word I would have chosen is Interland.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s