Book Review: Unofficial Britain

“These are landscapes not considered to be ‘proper’ countryside, yet they harbour an array of life and can have as much beauty as the postcard rural Britain of common imagination.”

Unofficial Britain: Journeys Through Unexpected Places, by Gareth E. Rees, explores the ‘magic, mythology and folklore of urban space’. The author travels the length and breadth of Britain seeking out places many would overlook as they pass through. He delves into the history of structures that at first glance are ubiquitous but on closer inspection may harbour unique stories and features.

Time imbues what has gone before with nostalgia. A Victorian mill may now be regarded as worthy of preservation while a motorway flyover is hailed an eyesore, new roads widely protested against. Fields razed to make way for yet another housing estate are mourned for the cost to nature, with people forgetting that man has always used his surrounds in this way.

“By the seventeenth century the great forests that covered the land had been largely plundered for houses, ships and fuel, while fields had been enclosed for agriculture and ownership by those pretty hedgerows we sentimentalise today. The entirety of the lowland country had been reconfigured for the benefit of humans.”

Chapters are divided by the structure or place on which the author is focusing. The first of these is the electricity pylon.

“To attack the ugliness of electricity pylons, on which we rely for our daily lives, is to deny the truth of the state we live in, the civilisation we have built and the price we must pay for it.”

As well as considering the varying reactions to these ‘modern invaders’, the author shares tales of darkness – hauntings and suicides – and also the art they have inspired. To some a pylon is a thing of awe and beauty, to others it is a blot on the landscape.

Next comes an investigation of ring roads and roundabouts. Underneath a flyover on Glasgow’s incomplete ring road can be found ‘a hotchpotch underworld of cobbled slopes, pathways, stone plinths and steps’. Just as archaeologists sift through ancient remains to try to ascertain how our ancestors lived, so Rees examines more modern design and detritus to see if he can make sense of purpose or possible messages left. A surprising amount of lore is uncovered along with evidence of the illicit – attracted to spaces that go largely unseen.

Hauntings in housing estates are probed, along with stories of poltergeists and local ghostbusting teams.

Buildings such as factories and power stations become iconic as time passes. What may once have been complained of as ugly can quickly become venerated when steeped in local memory. Land use has always been modified to suit the now.

“the latest aspect of the biography of this location”

In delving into the spaces behind or beneath a place, the author opines that fear induced – such as monstrous creatures glimpsed in shadows – is not the result of an overactive imagination but rather a survival instinct that humans have experienced for centuries.

“A place is made of stories you read and rumours you hear. It is made of prejudices and anxieties, shaped by your past experiences. It is an atmosphere”

Graffiti is art to some. Shrines can exist without sanctified spaces.

Whatever the beauty, or otherwise, of the roads and buildings that fall under the author’s gaze, his musings are fascinating to consider. It is not just the particular stories that he shares but also what can be learned about people’s perceptions – their reaction to change.

“After each new manifestation replaces the old, it too becomes worn, decayed and saturated with nostalgia, to the point where some mourn its passing as much as others once lamented its coming. So the circle turns.”

Rees writes with a very particular style. He harnesses the personal and philosophical, offering thoughts that are penetrating yet always entertaining. He has an eye for the surreal and the skill to present this as worthy of consideration.

I wasn’t convinced by the poems that conclude each chapter, although they do offer a kind of nursery rhyme coda – perhaps of the darker variety – to the preceding narrative.

Unofficial Britain is a study of aspects of the isle from a rarely viewed perspective. It will encourage the reader to look more closely at surrounds not typically regarded as of interest. It offers a fresh take on vistas some may too readily dismiss.

“Whatever changes come, let us never fall prey to the delusion of a halcyon past and convince ourselves that any single period of history is more authentic than another”

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.

Book Review: Car Park Life

“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. 

Book Review: The Stone Tide

“I’d come to realise that none of this was ours. Not really. A house is an accumulation of lives. It permits you to dwell among its walls for as long as those walls stand. But you will never own it. Instead the house owns you. It takes your money and makes you work hard to protect it until you either leave or die. Then it waits for the next soul to come along.”

The Stone Tide, by Gareth E. Rees, explores how moments in a person’s life affect self and those who come after, the unconsidered consequences of both action and inaction. It tells of grief and loss, searches for meaning in memory, how the stories we tell ourselves at any given time, that we consider fact, shape what comes next.

Gareth moves with his wife, Emily, and their two young daughters from Hackney in London to a dilapidated Victorian house in Hastings. When he walks his dog down to the seashore Gareth is assailed by memories of his best friend from school, Mike, who died falling from the castle walls in St Andrews twenty years ago. While Emily is devoting her time and talents to renovating their home, Gareth researches the history of their new environment, intending to write a book on the people and place.

Hastings has a rich history, and not just of an eleventh century battle. In 1923 John Logie Baird, who moved to the town for the good of his health, built a prototype of a machine that would transform the way people viewed the world. Television wasn’t a new idea, and Baird’s work was superseded by the Marconi Corporation, but the restorative walks he took around Hastings inspired him. Or so says the author. In each of the people he studies he writes elements of their story as he imagines it to have been.

He includes Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and fossil hunter who wrote a book called The Phenomenon of Man that was subsequently banned by the Catholic Church. The tome predicted the World Wide Web. Charles Dawson was another local fossil hunter. He desired fame and was not averse to manufacturing archaeological finds to achieve it. His most famous creation, Piltdown Man, was inspired by a conversation with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who also, for a time, resided in Hastings.

Aleister Crowley was another infamous resident. His belief in the occult and his own powers are demonstrated during a meeting with Baird on the seafront. All of these people worked in and around places that Gareth visits, examining what remains of their history and legends. He explores the lives and the deaths, reflecting on: memorials in churchyards; blue plaques on buildings; names or initials carved in teenage hangouts; a proliferation of memorial benches.

Emily is deep in her own research, seeking out the best materials and tradespeople as she organises the tearing up of the house and assists in its rebuild. Gareth admits he is of little help, escaping whenever he feels overwhelmed by the state of their home. As well as the challenges of progressing his writing he is plagued by health issues. In a pub he empathises with a collection of stuffed cats who died of suspected smoke inhalation.

“Life was hard. The best you could hope for was a little warmth now and then, even if the attempt killed you.”

Time passes and Gareth is possessed by the landscape and its development as he catches glimpses of other’s lives in shifting time and space. He contemplates the barrier between perceived reality and fantasy. He ponders if such a thing exists, if life is the stories we create for ourselves.

Gareth’s story is shadowed by memories of his friend, Mike, and his lack of progress with his book. He compiles a wealth of research but it lacks the coherent structure he initially envisaged. Meanwhile progress on the renovation has stalled due to lack of funds. Emily’s frustrations finally pierce Gareth’s self-absorption. Just as Mike’s actions affected Gareth, and forever changed his parents – a reality that Gareth could not see at the time – so Gareth’s actions have affected Emily.

The writing is a fascinating smorgasbord of interlinked history and memory. There are many references to factual accounts but I preferred not to dig further into the references provided at the end. The truth or fiction of what is being explored is both irrelevant and a key point in the narrative. It is a story, as is everything anyone learns or experiences. We are shaped by the time and place in which we live, just as we are a factor in shaping it. Each individual’s accepted truth is unique.

An unusual, deeply personal account that offers up many wider issues to consider alongside a psychogeography of Hastings. Beguiling yet brutal in its honesty, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.