:: Article

The Amundsen of Asda

By Alex Diggins.

Gareth E. Rees, Car Park Life (Influx Press, 2019)

A figure struggles across a vast, bleached landscape. Solitary, alone, heavily bundled in clothes. They toil behind a sledge or cart heaped cumbrously high. With goods to trade? Furs and skins? Survival gear? At this distance, it is impossible to tell. Either way, it looks heavy. It looks like hard work.

The sun is high and bright. It glances piercingly off the wet ground. Shading your eyes, you peer closer. The figure becomes clearer … Yes, it’s definitely a woman. And yep – she’s definitely pushing a shopping trolley. The sun dips behind a cloud and the tarmac beneath your feet dulls. The crosshatch constellations of parking spaces emerge. White lines bisect the ground. Behind, massive familiar red and white capitals boom: ‘Welcome to TESCO.’

In the right light, and with a dash of imagination, the weekly shop takes on a mythic significance. Tesco’s terra incognita becomes charged with adventure. The uncharted landscape of Sainsbury’s beckons, tingling with promise.

*

Or so Gareth E. Rees’s argues in Car Park Life. His immoderately entertaining book is part-expedition journal, part-anthropological thesis of that most inauspicious of places: the supermarket car park. Told with a voice that recalls the wearied Brexit Britain satire of Stewart Lee—and is never less than coruscating about the inherent absurdity of his “obsession”—it nonetheless wins the reader over through the searching gaze Rees turns on himself, and his fellow supermarket denizens. It is far wittier and more insightful than any book on car parks has any right to be.

Rees has form here. His previous books include Marshland, a fevered exploration of the Hackney Marshes, and The Stone Tide, a ‘semi-fictional’ occult autobiography set around his hometown of Hastings. He also runs the website Unofficial Britain which catalogues those overlooked spaces that the pioneering nature writer Richard Mabey celebrated as “unofficial countryside” – drainage ditches and viaducts, railway arches and train sidings, municipal woodlands and roundabouts. Mabey’s approach was before its time. But Rees’s interest in liminal spaces is very much part of the zeitgeist. Call them edgelands, interzones or debatable land, these bastard landscapes are increasingly acclaimed as “Britain’s true wildernesses.” They fall between categories: being neither urban nor truly rural. As such, they skirt the jurisdiction of accumulated capital and aristocratic privilege that still rules swathes of our countryside and duck the paternalistic oversight of bodies like the National Trust. But they also bypass the bludgeoning cosh of our densely built city centres where tarmac, glass, concrete and brick dominate to such an extent that they spawn their own micro-climates. Unpoliced and overlooked these edgelands may be, but as Rees and many others testify, they are far from unloved.

Indeed, the most forceful shift in contemporary nature writing has been a reorientation away from the picturesque and conventionally ‘wild’ towards the messy, entangled and contested spaces that bloom around Britain’s cities. “The paved world can be as articulate as the vegetated,” Tim Dee writes. “All of our habitat is relevant: not just the pretty bits.” It is a reorientation compelled by the defining fact of our times: we live in the Anthropocene, an epoch irreparably shaped and scarred by human presence. It is an act of wilful naivety for those writing about the natural world to pretend otherwise. But it also, more damningly, denies the reader the same uncomplicated pleasures that past generations took from high mountains and unconquered jungles: awe, wonder, exhilaration and a salutary dose of perspective. Rees’s half-serious, half-ironic contention that car parks are as fertile a ground for the writer as a Highland glen is, then, wryly prescient. After all, we spend much of our lives in non-spaces like bus stops, airport terminals and car parks—why shouldn’t we discover a measure of uplift in the process?

*

Rees’s quest begins, as so many do, with an epiphanic encounter in the Morrison’s car park of Hastings.

The yellow glow of the Morrison’s sign reflected in a puddle has all the sad beauty of a late-night amusement arcade … The disembodied voices of the night shift drift across the lots as I wander in transgressive loops, crossing white lines, disabled parking bays and the petrol forecourt … This seems a different, wilder car park to the one in the daytime.

It’s a lovely moment which contains much that makes this book so beguiling. The writing has an everyday lyricism, salted with realism, “the sad beauty of a late-night amusement arcade”. Car parks, in Rees’s figuring, are strange, troubling, illicit and enchanted spaces. But they are also deeply mundane: they are, after all, just car parks; both poetic and irresistibly prosaic. In this sense, they work in the same way that rivers did in pre-modern times: at once necessary to quotidian existence, but also thrumming with mysterious energies and capricious spirts. Portals to other worlds—and to the bakery section.

That heady sense of “transgression” is also central to Rees’s project. Car parks are hotbeds of deviancy. They may be some of the most rigorously surveyed patches of real estate in the UK, yet something about their nature as non-spaces attracts the criminal. Once night falls and the last bins are put out, they become private fiefdoms and convenient marketplaces for doggers, drag racers, drug dealers and pimps. But Rees also has fun itemising the ways in which these blank canvases draw out, like poison from a wound, the murderous impulses and animal instincts of otherwise sane, law-abiding citizens.

Take the Battle of Edmonton IKEA in 2016. There, attracted by rock-bottom discounts on sofas, a mob of 6,000 gathered in the car park to await the shop doors opening at midnight. At first, a festive mood prevailed. But things turned ugly when the hapless store manager tried to kick the sale off by cutting a log in the entrance, a Swedish good luck tradition. By this point the crowd was wound to a tight, homicidal pitch and, as though summoned by a starting cannon, they rushed the doorway, “bodies jamming the entrance … falling and tripping.” Pitched battles reigned in the sofa department as customers tried to lay claim to their acreage of soft furnishings. The toll at the end of night stood at twenty people hospitalised and young man stabbed in the car park. “Remarkably,” Rees concludes, “police declared that the stabbing was not related to the customer riot, but to a gang dispute, meaning that at the same time as crazed shoppers tore each other to shreds over cheap sofas, gang members were blood-letting over territory in the same car park.”

It is a great anecdote, told with a beady, George Romero-esque eye for the absurdities and violent lusts which boil just beneath the surface of placid, pacified consumerism. Yet Car Park Life has a more polemical edge as well. Throughout his travels, Rees is often baffled by the extent to which our common land has been parcelled out and privatised by commercial interest. In Cribbs Causeway, off the M5 near Bristol, he is paralysed by a kind of sublime despair at the apparently limitless expanse of parking. “I cannot quite take it all in. Even though I know there are precisely 7,000 parking spaces here … It feels infinite. The Escher lithograph of parking … I am awestruck.” In fact, as his explorations progress, Rees comes to see his quest as a safari tour of our fossil-fuel addicted, hopelessly consumerist society. These vasty plots of macadam and ornamental shrubs will be the lasting testament of the inverted values of early 21st Century Britain: the future fossils of our age. This thought strikes Rees with the force of revelation when he encounters the bizarre statue that guards the entrance to Cribbs Causeway. It is a two-storey high, ersatz menhir, placed to give the illusion of deep time depth and continuity to this most modern and unholy of temple precincts. “This standing stone in a roundabout between the food distribution centre and shopping complex, in farmland concreted over for the passage of automobiles, is the perfect artwork for the Anthropocene. It does not represent how far we have come, but how far we will fall.”

*

Despite the occasional doomy prophesying, Rees mostly tackles his subject with piquant humour. Writing about the environment, especially cities, can veer into verbosity. Too often psychogeography teeters into pretentiousness. It is almost as if—despite the protestations of the author, who insists there is much to write about, say, suburban roundabouts—writers fear being caught short: without enough words. This is not the case with Car Park Life. It is a compact book; told in short, sharp chapters. Though lyrical, Rees’s style is invariably more Bill Bryson than Iain Sinclair—he reaches for jokes more often than he stretches for poetry. The torturous prolixities of Will Self are, thankfully, absent. That said, Rees’s travels are set amidst ruptures, personal and political. Brexit looms. His marriage crumbles. The climate emergency smoulders. Further engagement with the interfolding of these events would have been welcome.

Nonetheless, Car Park Life is by far the best book about car parks I have ever read. If it marks a new direction in environmental literature, then it is a path I would gladly keep following. But even if it proves only to be a fox-scavenged and littered dead end, where the tarmac begins to blur back into vegetation, then the journey would still have been worth it. For, as Rees understands, there is liberation, enlightenment and, yes, joy, to be found in the transgression of petty tyrannies. Taking the road Lidl travelled by makes all the difference.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Diggins is a writer and critic based in London. His work has appeared in, among others, The Economist, TLS, The Spectator, London Magazine and New Welsh Review. He is also published in Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth (Unbound). Follow him on Twitter: @AHABDiggins.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 18th, 2019.