Writing the margins
By Karl Whitney.
Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, Jonathan Cape, 2011.
The answer to the question no one asked – what happens when you subtract psychogeography from the study of peri-urban landscapes? – is answered by this book: you end up with a sort of flyblown romantic poetry that tends towards bathos and shies away from depth or complexity. Is this a book that marks, as some have suggested, the founding of a new movement that seeks to utilise an approach based on the infra-ordinary to look at apparently invisible landscapes that lie at the edges of our cities? Or does it signal the collapse of psychogeographical approaches to certain specific cities into the kind of generic, one-size-fits-all model that can be applied to the fringes of any city? Does Edgelands, in other words, mark the homogenisation of a methodology that has previously sought to emphasise the loss of local specificity to the steamroller of global capitalism? Much latter-day psychogeographical writing seeks to combat the growth of ‘non-place’ – the generic locations such as airports and 24-hour petrol stations much beloved of late capitalism – while concentrating on the peculiar specificity of the local. This book largely eschews specificity in favour of a comparative approach to edgelands that runs the risk of elevating them to the level of the type of generic and interchangeable space that psychogeography had attempted to combat. In this book, therefore, edgelands, seem in danger of appearing as anonymous and unvaried as capitalist non-place.
Of course, this book isn’t a work of psychogeography, at least according to its authors, who are keen to hint at the differences between themselves and what they quite snottily refer to as ‘the work of some so-called psychogeographers’ who see the edgelands as ‘a backdrop for bleak observations on the mess we humans have made of our lives, landscapes, politics and each other … using the edgelands as a shortcut to misanthropy.’ Having thus ruled out the use of the landscape as part of any larger critique, the authors occasionally gesture towards the bewildering effects of capitalism, but, hands tied by their stated desire to present a largely positive view of the urban fringes, they shy away from examining the wider implications of these often troubling places. Baldly put, the edgelands are fucking awful, by and large. Yet in these landscapes, the untidy, the inaccessible and the heterogenous can tell us something about the economics and politics of urban space: what the city chooses to let in, and what it keeps at the periphery either through physical or economic compulsion. For example, a brief discussion about the Zone – the unbuilt area outside the defensive wall of Paris which was occupied by slums – doesn’t muse, as one expects it to, on the place of gypsies and travellers in the edgelands; rather it settles for some rather bland observations about the place of CCTV in policing the contemporary city. (Gypsies are given a fleeting mention earlier in the book.) Such an approach may keep the narrative skipping along at a pleasant pace, but it fails to address some of the more interesting issues raised by the urban periphery, namely the interaction between the private property of the city and the nomadic lifestyles of travellers.
Nevertheless, this book, written by two accomplished landscape lyric poets, is crisply written and full of vivid, arresting images that seem to emerge fully formed from the apparently unpromising, rubbish-strewn landscape: one that stood out particularly was ‘the barley sugar of broken indicator glass’ – the fragments of a car’s hazard light found by the side of the road. However, in this seemingly laudable desire to transmute the ugliness of the edgeland into the realms of the picturesque, one can detect the weaknesses of the authors’ approach. They maintain, correctly, that the countryside is as manmade a landscape as anything our cities have to offer, the result of hundreds of years of cultivation, enclosure, drainage and division. Yet in the English imaginary, the rural seems natural, the city unnatural. This is something the authors wish to combat, seeking to unveil the beauty of the edgelands – where the urban and rural coexist unevenly – in the same way that romantic poets interpreted the rural landscape.
A problem emerges, though: why should beauty be our main concern in dealing with the edgelands, or indeed any other landscape? Just because the edgelands were often the places where we grew up, should they be sites of reminiscence – nostalgia, even? Although the authors never explicitly set out to problematize the landscape in this way, their approach raises these questions. And those questions are never satisfactorily answered.
Even though the prose is bright and sharp, the division of the book into what are essentially thematic chapters – under headings such as ‘Landfill’, ‘Sewage’, ‘Lofts’ and ‘Canals’ – tends to encourage a neat arc within each chapter that gives the impression of the section being hermetically self-contained. Often it’s not clear whether the sections interrelate as closely as they should, and a sense of narrative progression is for the most part avoided. Even though specific journeys are referred to throughout the book, only a couple are mentioned specifically, giving the impression of holding back material. One often feels that the authors are developing a list of key edgelands features – a typology of edgelands, if you will – which seems to run counter to the particularity of these landscapes: while such an area may contain a power station, a dump and a canal, surely there is more to the area than just these features? A thematic approach precludes the exploration of such specificity.
While Edgelands should be welcomed as an accessible transposition of the kind of landscape writing typically employed when addressing the pastoral, it also stands as an example of the problems one encounters when undertaking such a project. Perhaps the edgelands require an agnostic mode all of their own, one that doesn’t attempt transcendence through nostalgic reminiscence or wishful projection, and instead seeks to address the ugliness of such a landscape on its own terms.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karl Whitney is a writer and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 18th, 2011.