Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Writing on the edge

I forgot to say: the reason I wrote about David Rayson in a recent post is because I was reminded of his work by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’s new book Edgelands, which I’ve just finished. Farley and Symmons Roberts are both poets, and they write with lyrical exactness about the borderlands of our towns and cities, occupied by retail parks, rubbish tips, sewage farms, containers and what Richard Mabey called ‘the unofficial countryside’. This is a wonderful description of a landfill site:

Salt Ayre cross-sectioned, cut like a pie to reveal the strata of waste, or a deep core sample drawn from the ground. Here we can clearly see the fine veins of Christmas tree needles marking Januaries, a definite band that marks the UK electricity Act and the first Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation orders, the gradual inundation of platics and particleboard as we rise through the layers of years. Deep down, at the lowest levels, lie the peelings and scrapings of teatimes when Clement Attlee was Prime Minister. Vast colonies of microorganisms are busy at work in the dark. Leachate oozes from the ground into collection runnels and pipes, the compressed juice of the decades. Do we just imagine it, or does the ground give off heat?

And this is a great riff on the messages painted on strips of torn white sheets and tied to motorway bridges so they can be seen by passing motorists:

Occasionally, these bed-sheet bulletins are public declarations of private feelings: TRACEY M WILL YOU MARRY ME? Or SALLY P LOVES DANNY J. And a temporary bridge sign is a good way of delivering a spoiler too. Many parents can remember one fateful morning finding the home-made banner DUMBLEDORE DIES stretched out across the M6 in full view of their sleepy children. This was mere hours after watching TV news pictures of kids queuing at midnight outside bookshops to get a copy of the latest Potter tome. It is tempting to imaging a struggling children’s author, sick with jealousy over the young wizard’s success, queuing for one of the first copies, flicking to the end to see who dies, then heading out in darkness to the M6 with a freshly daubed sheet.

And this is on the wooden pallets on which the products of our globalised consumer culture make their journeys from the ends of the earth:

Pallets are consumer capitalism’s red blood cells. They convey the products around the organism. Unless you have taken this book to the top of a mountain to read (and we’d strongly discourage such frippery) then the chances are you’re surrounded by things from places far away, borne here on a pallet. And even if you are in the middle of nowhere, look to the labels on your clothes and wonder at the distances they’ve travelled. Pallets move the goods around. If we isolate the pallet, as Stephen Dedalus isolated the butcher boy’s basket in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, pluck it out from the slur and texture of the everyday and consider it, self-contained, against the background of space, the thing it most resembles is a magic carpet with rigor mortis.

Much of what Farley and Symmons Roberts are doing reminds me of French writers on the quotidian: Lefebvre’s interest in the terrain vague of the suburbs, for example, or François Maspero’s investigation in his book Roissy Express of the scarcely visited hinterland beyond the Périphérique (orbital motorway), a concrete and asphalt sprawl of hypermarchés, grands ensembles and cheap hotels. This ‘circular purgatory’ consists of ‘pieces of badly stuck together space’ which, unless people have the misfortune to live there, are ‘only for traveling through. And quickly, by car.’


  1. Thanks for the "Edgelands" heads up. Possibly to be read alongside Auge's Non-places, do you think?

  2. A great recommendation. I've just finished it and found it to be a very beautiful book.

  3. Thanks to you both. Non-places is worth a look although my favourite Auge book is In the Metro.

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