Review by James Case
Personal explorations and childhood recollections by the authors (united into one voice), plus a good trawl of references to writings, art and photography informed by those ‘edgelands’ which border the city proper and the “countryside”, seen only as edges if, as usually, simply travelled through, but as territories in their own right when imaginatively visited. This is enjoyable and easy to read, succinctly chaptered into subjects (e.g. “Dens”, “Containers”, “Paths”), and each chapter chunked into paragraphs with spaces so as not to wear out the typical modern reader. Both authors are poets: the blurb refers to them as “well known poets”, a phrase which is a crime against literacy, since if they are “well known” it seems insulting to both them and the reader to assert the fact.
As poets, they point out that poetry often deals with the mundane and overlooked, which they do here, and too they have some witty images and asides (which possibly signifies some modern poetry). How one may long, however, for a writer to realise that in dealing with liminal issues a liminal discourse, a refreshment is required rather than a tarted up trudge through familiar banality. To be fair, the method of working is to “snapshot” – as image (beyond concept), concept (abstracted from image) and metonym – a particular scene and move on quickly, to thereby evoke a running contrast between looking and seeing, between fast time and slow time; plus, for those of us who still wander wastelands and edgelands – literally and through the places of the mind – there is the delight of recognition; for those of us whose childhoods were spent in these places there is a deeper delight. Perhaps a way of expressing the book’s method analogically is suggested in the authors’ discussion of artist Edward Chell and his paintings of motorway verges: He has described the powerful visual metaphor of the verge as poised between the ordered, policed and restricted boundary spaces of the state that we are only allowed to look at travelling at great speed, and the slower, uncontrollable energies of nature…. (His images) suggest our perception in flux: the way, seen at speed, the intricacies of grassland and vegetation shift in and out of focus as our relation to the incident light changes. Because Chell is interested in vision, how we look at (or don’t look at) what lies all around us. His paintings concentrate our gaze on what’s usually fleeting and reduced to blurred texture; at the same time, their stillness seems to contain speed, and its shifting effects of light.
Clearly, there is a central focus upon what for brevity’s sake nay be termed ‘the ideology’ of land and landscape, the borders and powers of governments and private power, and the acts of subversion represented by edgelands and the human activity that takes place there. Also there is, in the thesis itself, a radical questioning of the conservative gardening of ‘beauty’ and order, and thence an interrogation of the ideology of ‘aesthetics’, and an oblique suggestion of the tawdriness of ‘beauty’ on the one hand, and the ‘beauty of ugliness’ on another.
Some of the laddish wit irritates, imagery seems clever and abstract by and large rather than ‘fleshed out’ as one would indeed hope from poets. Perhaps the better reflections and refractions are conceptual rather than poetic. A discussion of an evolutionary term ‘progressive detachment’, for instance, is offered as a ‘beautiful, poetic, idea’, yet it may be better formulated as sharing the beauty of mathematics. In science, the authors state, “metaphors change… in an attempt to be more faithful to the evidence”; presumably, an analogy is being suggested by which new imagery needs to be found to express new discoveries (such as the edgelands). As I’ve said, the whole discourse of this book, and the imagery in particular, is pretty much off the shelf and lacks a fresh approach.
Possibly some sort of category error has been made, firstly by trying to catalogue ‘edgelands’ into discrete classifications; secondly by identifying them too closely with their physical location. One would have thought that by nature, edgelands are not subject to classification and territory (and hence the requirement of a more adventurous mode of expression). Strangely unpeopled except by monolithic categories of types (e.g. families en route to Benidorm or Ibiza at airports), the authors share that peculiar modern sensitivity to what they perceive as any charge of misanthropy (early on they dismiss attempts to dismiss edgelands in favour of transcendental trips to the Highlands, or as evidencing edgelands as showing the mess we have made of the planet as “shortcuts to misanthropy”). The edglelands in this book have a ghostly quality that, I am sure unintentionally, leaves out the human and exploits a detritus of attributes, dislocated and disconnected.
All landscapes are imaginary, cities are imaginary. As the writers say, “we can concentrate on the local, the immediate, and devote our attention to a few square feet of earth.” And rather than having to find edgelands in the obvious geographical border between town and country, we can see them wherever we are, wherever there is human activity. There are many strata of populations in all our cities, and the demographic metaphor is apt. We live in edgelands whoever, wherever we are.