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Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness

Poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts turn our attention to the unloved spaces where town and country meet, writes Robin Wilson. Photos by Jason Orton

Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Jonathan Cape, 2011, £12.99

Edgelands is an exploration into England’s ‘zones of inattention’, places that ‘thrive on disregard’, encompassing spaces as disparate as abandoned railway lines and self-storage facilities. Behind it, one senses, is a well-honed and enjoyed work of collaboration. The text subsumes the two voices of poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts under a common ‘we’. Here, co-authorship brings depth and stamina to the book: the wealth of observation, reflection and the physical scope of the terrains covered is genuinely impressive.

Both authors are from the North West and they admit a particular ‘emotional connection’ to the edgelands in and around Liverpool and Manchester. However, the tone of the book is neither nostalgic nor extensively based on reminiscence. Indeed, the authors express the need to ‘put aside nostalgia’ in order to engage with edgelands. The book firmly expresses a curiosity for the discovery of new things, understanding present edgelands as spaces of emerging material and behavioural phenomena.

So-called ‘overlooked’ and ‘undesigned’ spaces of recent and contemporary culture have already been extensively articulated and documented in literature and photography, for example in the work of Iain Sinclair and Stephen Hughes (AJ 16.05.02). Farley and Roberts gradually communicate an authoritative knowledge of the field of previous studies, referencing others’ work extensively, interweaving the experience and expressions of similar explorers with accounts of their own edgeland encounters. Their portrait of edgelands thereby emerges as a study that understands these spaces as acutely specific and responsive to history as well as geography. Importantly, Farley and Roberts reveal how the boundary line between the seen and the unseen, the dominant culture and the edge condition is constantly in flux.

Correspondingly, edgelands and the marginal practices that take place within them are perceived not to be separate from the wider world, but constantly produced and reproduced by the same global, historical forces. According to Farley and Roberts, edgelands should also be regarded as sites of possible resistance to the ‘flattening effects of global capitalism’. The authors perhaps present this possibility most strongly in the way they describe how these spaces combine and distort the normal hierarchies of global capital into new and surprising configurations. Writing of Anglian Water’s sewage treatment plants and the activities of bird watchers in and around them, Farley and Roberts write, ‘you would be watching a bird that breeds in a range encompassing the circumpolar tundra, wintering on facilities owned by a Canadian company [the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board]. You are probably using Austrian or German optics. Welcome to the global edgelands’.

Edgelands has no illustrations (the photos accompanying this article are by Jason Orton, documenter of London’s edgelands for over a decade), but Farley and Roberts’ awareness of imagery associated with edgeland spaces in art past and present, is considerable. They discuss, for example, the work of photographers Keith Arnatt and Frank Watson. Arnatt produced works such as Abandoned Landscapes and in the project The Hush House, Watson recorded, ‘like an archaeologist of the recent past’ air bases abandoned after the end of the Cold War. By resisting the actual presence of such imagery in the book, but rather noting these projects in terms of their attitude towards specific types of edgelands, the authors preserve the notion of edgelands as something mutable and based on processes rather than as defined by a certain aesthetic. Moreover, they maintain an emphasis on edgelands as defined by the peculiarity of human activity and encounter within them. It is a little disappointing that the same logic was not applied to the cover of the book, where a skilful but quite predictable digital montage of an apocalyptic, post-industrial landscape by Helen Saunders appears.

Farley and Roberts enter this field of study as poets. One part if their project is to demonstrate that poetry has always dealt with marginal spaces and the overlooked, and they propose edgelands as privileged spaces for the development of the English lyric tradition. But their response is also generously interdisciplinary and beckons, not least, towards the spatial arts and professions. Under the heading ‘Dens’ they explore how certain edgelands host an impulse toward primitive and improvised construction from an ever-changing array of materials to hand, in a constant reinvention of the origins of architecture. They mention urban planning directly, albeit from the point of view of how edgelands present for that profession contradiction and expose the ideological limits of codified practice. Above all, Edgelands is a work of contextual site investigation. Its authors traverse and report back from many of the same types of spaces that architects and landscape architects enter with the intention to alter. In this respect the book offers an important benchmark of sensitive observation, revealing degrees of complexity within the ‘banal’ and, perhaps most importantly, defining us all as users and beneficiaries of edgeland space, whether we are aware of it, or not. n

Robin Wilson is a critic and lecturer on art and architectureAll pictures are by photographer Jason Orton, who has documented London’s edgelands for over a decade

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