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Theophany under the flyover

15 March 2011

A burnt-out pier is the key, suggests John Pridmore


Edgelands: Journeys into England’s true wilderness
Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts
Jonathan Cape £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

“THIS is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud.” Such is the bleak setting of Hilary Mantel’s dark comedy Beyond Black.

It is England’s grey and unpleas­ant land. This is the “nowhere” we are near when we are “getting no­where”. It is where we weep and wail and gnash our teeth, when our jour­ney has come to an indefinite halt in a tailback between junctions 29 and 30 on the M25.

Here is a landscape in which few of us take pleasure. But the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts do not share our aversion. They have explored England’s “edge­lands”, the scenery that Mantel so vividly evokes as the backdrop to her fine novel, and they celebrate what they have found.

They are like Victorian explorers returned from their travels, report­ing to the Royal Geographical Soci­ety of unmapped regions where few have ventured. They speak of aban­doned quarries, disused gravel pits, and derelict factories, of car-breakers’ yards, scrap-metal facili­ties, and landfill sites. They tell of charmed realms beneath flyovers, of secrets hidden beside poisoned pools where suicides and supermar­ket trolleys meet their end, of the path less travelled by between the embankment and the sewage farm.

Farley and Roberts invite us to explore this nameless, overlooked in-between land, neither urban nor rural, so near to us, yet so unfamil­iar. They would have us linger in this no man’s land long enough to be disturbed by its strangeness, to be haunted by its mystery, and to catch a glimpse of its loveliness. For some, such an exploration will be a jour­ney of rediscovery. Memories will be rekindled of our feral child­hoods, of building dens in the un­tamed regions at the bottom of the garden, of wriggling through the fence backing on to the railway, of rooting through bomb sites for slivers of shrapnel. We will be re­minded of our first reading of Stig of the Dump.

Our poets are not writing for loiterers at church bookstalls, but they are alert to the resonances of their journey with that of Christian discipleship. “The crucifixion was essentially an edgelands story,” they write, “and the Via Dolorosa is an edgelands path.” Amen, and again I say, Amen.

To my delight, this book closes with a cameo study of Brighton’s West Pier. Piers, like churches, are promontories into the unknown. Brighton’s West Pier, like most of Brighton’s churches, was a Victorian folly. Now it is a charred skeleton. But in its dereliction it is perhaps even more of an edgeland structure than it was in its heyday. So it will be with our churches. Like our West Pier, all that will remain of them, much sooner than later, will be burned bones. Yet, for eyes to see, they will still bear witness to the beyond.

My only sadness as I turned these pages was that we are too rarely taken to Cornwall. All of Cornwall is edgeland, the numinous ruins of its ancient mines intensely so. Sadly, even in Cornwall edgelands can be lost. It is heartbreaking to learn that what was once the Tuckingmill arsenic mine, until recently a vast, desolate, and richly contaminated landscape, has now been “regenera­ted”. It now boasts, amongst other attractions, “a bespoke skate park and a public toilet”. Ichabod — the glory is departed.

Few writers teach us to see the world afresh as Farley and Roberts do. They have imparted an original vision and blessed us with a beauti­ful book.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney, in east London, and lives in Brighton.

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