Durham Book Festival: From Rust to Rapture
Have you ever watched the sun rise and felt a stab of patriotic pride as its light sparkled over a dewy bed of waste? Ever been overcome by that awe of the Burkean sublime as you gaze at the crumbling tiers of a derelict car park? It seems unlikely, but in their new book Edgelands, it is precisely these bizarre spectacles that Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts energetically profess to be the “tiny parables of creation”.
Edgelands: to the unpoetic eye, they exist as the sullied, forsaken waste tips and grime-caked pools that pollute the faded backdrop of an England you never saw on Grandma’s biscuit tin. The taboo word of every National Trust estate from Land’s End to John o’Groats, ‘Edgelands’ are the token Achilles heel of every city smug enough to make it onto Britain’s Heritage list.
Like a deliberate homage to Tracey Emin, these desolate outskirts are the grim dumping ground of Iceland trolleys, battered tyres and a hundred Citroën bonnets that were once the pride of every trendy teen of the eighties. To both Farley and Symmons, however, they are the shunted terrain of an alien landscape brimming with peculiar charm. These settings are foreign, uninhabited expanses; curious grey spaces that are “seen, but unseen; looked at, but not into”. Like something from an H.G. Wells novel, they are characterised with turrets of scrap metal and machinery; a pick ‘n mix of bright wires and plastic bottle caps. Perhaps not entirely consistent with the plush country and golden coastlines of a traditional Albion shore.
Just when you were growing cynical, the book challenges all preconceptions with a wit and absurdity that is nothing less than contagious. There exists a genuine sense of pride from the poets who emerge as unremittingly zealous in both their admiration and defence of all things grimy. Their pleasure erupts from the disorderly; the raw coarseness of that which they insist is “England’s real wilderness”. Commencing in their home town of North West England and inching down the industrial spine, the pair demonstrate a unique appreciation of these seemingly formidable backdrops; an intimate comprehension that can be traced to a childhood spent making haphazard dens on the bleak fringes of Manchester.
Each chapter teems with an indulgent gusto tangible enough to indoctrinate the most obstinate Wordsworthian. Illuminating the most unthinkable waste heaps, their vision makes a fascinating distinction from traditional convictions of environmental beauty. It is a celebratory nod to the realm of scruffy splendour.
Admittedly, their enthusiasm is at times hard to yield to; eyebrows were predominantly raised when one particular carton-crammed pond is likened to a “pre-Raphaelite vision”. Nevertheless, the duo makes a persuasive case for “an authentic, unkempt landscape that doesn’t know what to do with itself”. There is a sense of awkwardness, but more importantly “mystery” that is desperately intriguing for the pair. There is a giddy delight in binding two “apparently incompatible entities” and being able to call it beauty.
An intelligent and spirited creation, Edgelands is a glittering work of prose that is bordering on the poetic. The two voices knit fluidly together to craft a vastly readable text of childhood exploration and adult nostalgia. A creation that was originally set to be published as an anthology of poems, this book is a unique salutation to every bent golf club and bike frame rejected for the latest Christmas plaything. At times brilliantly droll and with a humour that breathes a vital blast of life and colour to the rusty mesh infrastructure of Britain’s neglected landfills, this book is a must for stately home snobs and Lake District devotees across the board. Rubber gloves recommended.