“For me, the true discovery is rarely the place itself – a location on a map or a building – but in understanding empirically that there are worlds hidden in plain sight, which can become visible if we bother to lift our veils and see the Britain that is, not an idealised Britain that never was.”
Between 2015 and 2018, Gareth E. Rees travelled the length and breadth of Britain visiting retail car parks. His fascination with these spaces began in Hastings, outside his local Morrisons supermarket, where he noticed the variety of activities taking place unregarded by busy shoppers. He decided to explore, especially around the edges of design decisions and consumer behaviour. He recognised that his fascination was perhaps as deviant as many of the exploits beheld.
“The problem has always been that hills don’t interest me as much as streets. Trees not as much as pylons. Foliage not as much as litter. It’s an issue, I know. I’m not proud.”
Divided into chapters that are bookended by photographs the author took on his travels, many details shared are of the ordinary but depicted in ways few readers may have considered. There are musings on people’s actions – their attitudes – and the window this offers on modern societal thinking. The author is not averse to mocking himself.
From his vantage point in the car park, Rees considers the architecture of various outlets. He observes how heritage buildings have been recommissioned – sterilised yet presented as somehow authentic. This neatening for consumers and tourists – the refreshing of blackened walls that once contained widespread misery – reflects how history is often remembered.
“In this country we prefer to dwell among facsimiles and facades, reassured by the convenient lie of the past.”
Activities in car parks include: drug deals, road rage, petrolhead races, sexual pursuits. People scurrying between shops and their cars – rushing to park and then to leave – cannot help but display their animal instincts. They compete for ownership, control and supremacy. They are suspicious of Rees for not behaving as expected.
Given the subject matter, the writing is inexplicably funny (kudos to the author). I particularly enjoyed the chapter titled The Ancestor which is set around Amesbury. Whilst providing an amusing potted history of the place, it hones in on ways in which we attempt to acknowledge and celebrate past events. This is observation rather than overt criticism.
In a chapter titled The Joy of Parking, Rees considers why vast retail car parks came to be provided and now themselves prove a draw to their users.
“Experience the joy of 7,000 free parking spaces.”
“Although I’ll admit that there is some ambiguity in the statement. Does the joy come from parking free of charge, or from the knowledge that 7,000 parking spaces are freely available?”
“I will enjoy their parking spaces without parking and without rewarding them with a purchase for their efforts. I won’t even sneak inside to buy a sandwich. It’s everything they don’t want. I’m an aberration, a freeloader”
There have been many books in recent years that draw attention to issues which make their authors despair of the choices others make that they disagree with. Rees mentions current affairs that worry and depress him but there is no hectoring. Rather these are personal, humble reflections offering a wider, longer term view.
The self-deprecating musings wrap around witty yet piercing insights on behaviours that may be frowned upon if considered – mostly they go unnoticed by those caught up in their own concerns. The news site stories quoted are shocking if unsurprising. Dangers lurk while people pass by unaware.
A poignant yet entertaining story about an urban adventurer and the discoveries he makes, including the many ways in which people break the rules in these widely frequented public spaces. Retail car parks and their margins will now be viewed through a recalibrated lens. Compelling, original and highly recommended.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.