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: Signal Failure

Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys, is a considered and often wry discourse on the impact of environmental change written after the author walked from London to Birmingham along the proposed route of the HS2 railway line. He writes of the aesthetics of the places he passes through and summarises discussions he had with a variety of individuals he met along the way. There are both financial and emotional aspects to their opinions about HS2. Some see potential benefits. Many object and struggle with the impotence they feel.

The narrative is not presented as an expert assessment but rather as the musings of an interested observer. As the author walks he has time to mull many aspects of the changes huge infrastructure projects can herald and the human reaction when a way of living comes under threat.

“Some of this walk will be about clinging on to the past; some about navigating the future.”

Jefferys set out on this walk with an idea but an apparent lack of experience of such an undertaking. He suffered from an over heavy rucksack and irrational fears when alone at night in his tent. He claims not to be a nature writer due to his lack of detailed knowledge but this means his thought processes are accessable. His reflections are interesting for their cogitation but also their ordinariness.

“For this walk I was keen to retain that sense of adventure, of an openess to the unknown”

Many of the arguments against HS2 are based on nostalgia, a desire to retain a vista or the bonds of community in which residents have invested. To be heard by those in authority these must be presented in quantifiable terms.

For example, in considering the impact on a well used and locally valued regional park an employee emphasises:

“the importance of usefulness […] the reduction of nature’s great complexity, its vast unknowability, to the level of a resource – to serve a single purpose or function. Nature as utility, valued only insofar as it serves a human purpose.”

This commodified idea of the English countryside does not promote untidy wildness but rather a taming of nature. Parks, farmland, managed forests and picturesque villages are all manmade.

Throughout the walk Jeffreys observes red kites, a species recently reintroduced by the RSPB.

“In a sense, their frequency detracts from what was once a splendid sight – although perhaps that reflects a misjudged appreciation of nature, whereby scarcity equates to importance, within the skewed economies of the collector.”

As miles are covered what is noticed is that working landscapes create their own aesthetics. There are fields filled with crops and livestock, pylons, roads and winding canals. He walks paths that follow abandoned railway lines. Enthusiasts have preserved some of these along with their accoutrements and appropriate steam trains.

A vast infrastructure project such as HS2 will bring massive disruption lasting many years. It will cut through what is considered beautiful countryside damaging the flora and fauna as well as established communities. That local residents resent this unwanted invasion is understandable, but the author ponders if this is reason enough not to go ahead.

Jeffreys passes by the results of other projects – landfill sites, a massive waste incinerator, electrical substations:

“the countryside, as I’ve already learnt, is not some zone of pristine purity. We have already altered it beyond belief with our agriculture, our transport, our waste.”

Over time, change is inevitable and sometimes for the better although there are will be certain losers in any transition. Jeffreys observes listed buildings and preserved parklands, neatly manicured and maintained. He mentions slum dwellings swept away and wonders where the occupants went and how they felt. In looking back, especially at the heavy industries in and around Birmingham, not all that is gone is to be mourned. He wonders which of our many pasts we wish to retain.

HS2 will have the greatest impact on those who value the tranquility of their lives along the proposed route. The line will be used by those who can afford it with any benefits accrued long term. What this book offers is not so much an opinion on this particular project as an eminently readable wider vision of how and why a variety of people value the environment in which they choose to live and play. Whether any change will ultimately be for good or ill, and whether it will then be considered worth the cultural and economic cost, is a layered and complex question. The reader is not offered answers so much as a broader understanding of the picture beyond that which invested parties wish to frame.

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

Book Review: Imaginary Cities

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Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson, is vast in scope and scale. It looks at cities throughout time, their founding and evolution, the effect their existence has had on man. The cities discussed are not restricted to those which can be visited. They include cities which exist only in history, those of myth and legend, fictional cities, and those which were conceived but never born. The cities are examined from a variety of perspectives but always with a view to their influences and effect. This is a perceptive, challenging and fascinating wander through time and space whilst looking at how history is defined.

We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. We are unreliable narrators even to ourselves. Time is much more complex and relativist than our linear way of thinking permits.

A note on this review. As I read the book I made notes. Much of what follows is taken from the book, ordered and paraphrased by me. Sometimes it is hard to cut back on all that I wish to highlight to a potential reader. This is very much a book that I want to encourage those with an interest in the subject to read, because I will struggle to do it justice.

Cities are conceived as utopias yet it is worth recognising that all dystopias are utopias for some inhabitants at least. To create an ideal city is it necessary to dispose of non ideal inhabitants? From ancient walled cities to modern, gated communities the barriers were erected to keep the Other out. Those who benefit from the status quo fear change even though it is the polyphony of a city that is its beating heart.

Might we see the Fellowship of the Ring as sabateurs of necessary progress, a ragged luddite band of aristocrats, peasent revolutionaries and priests preventing necessary industrialisation of Mordor?

The future will be built from the reconstructed wreckage of the past and the present. There is little in the behaviour of mankind to suggest we will abolish degradation, poverty and ruin given our inability to extricate from greed, power and sadism. With improvements in cleanliness and thereby health we exist, perhaps without realising, in what would once have been sought after as a utopia.

With cities as with people the condition of the bowels is all important. Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime, but middle class suburbs are incubators of apathy and delirium. The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Power is the control of space: in prison, factory or stately home; in kettling, erecting walls such as currently exist in Belfast or Gaza; in backstage passes, first class travel, or the ability to live in freedom within our own homes.

Every vast Emerald city requires vast emerald mines yet the powerful demand that everyone be happy by whatever means necessary: behavioural conditioning, drugs, lobotomisation.

Many accept the premise that the more you own the more you are and the more deserving of it you have been.

The edifices of the powerful have always dominated the city skyline, from the spires of churches to the glass towers of finance.

This is but a tiny taster of the subjects explored by the author. The book is long but every word is worth reading. It is a challenge to consider the world we inhabit, how it came to be and what will replace it. This is an exploration of psychogeography, architecture and philosophy; what is real and what reality even means; man’s inability to escape his influences, including fiction and the fiction that is accepted in our present and as history.

These tales of alchemy, devils and gold, theft and ambition and death, we give the insufficient title, history.

I do not review a great deal of non fiction but am so glad to have been sent such an astounding and readable tome. The depth, breadth and quality of writing is phenomenal. This is seminal stuff.

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