The first thing I noticed about Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts as they were introduced from the podium at the Southbank was their footwear. The former in grey suede of pointed toe, the latter brogues as richly shining as new conkers, both pairs looked new enough that the wearers might be self-conscious about them, wriggling their toes secretly to find comfort. Perhaps I only entertained this idea because they were together to talk about edgelands, and their new book of the same name, and I associate edgelands with walking – particularly walking that requires shoes you don’t much care about.
Both writers are poets (as well as novelists, librettists, teachers) and it showed in the excerpt they read and in their deft turn of phrase when it came to answering the questions posed by their chair, Richard Mabey, who was just as twinkly as I had hoped. While they didn’t grow up together, they did both grow up exploring and playing in edgelands, the bits and bobs of landscape that aren’t quite town or city, but aren’t countryside either. Living as I do a pigeon’s commute from the Lea valley, and the marshlands wedged between Leyton and Clapton in East London, this is a subject close to my heart.
I had not heard the term edgelands before, and the pair attribute it to Marion Shoard, citing her ‘call to arms, for poets and novelists to celebrate them,’ as the seed that grew – nourished by pub pints and nostalgic forays – into their book. Now that I have heard the word, I have a new category for my own not-quite-country landscape, a new frame in which to place it. Paul Farley admitted that this might not be a good thing. These edgeland places, unlike ‘loved landscapes, lived-in landscapes,’ tend to be nameless, like Wainwright’s ‘Inominate Tarn’ – ‘its wilderness quality evoked by the namelessness of its name.’ Once we give them a name, or at least a category, this creates a new kind of attention, of a kind that Paul admitted made him wish the book half existed but half did not.
The section they chose to read from Edgelands, which is divided into 26 sections such as ‘paths, dens, containers, landfills,’ was on standing water, and in amongst their evocation of plaintive places and the activities they attract were some wonderful descriptions. Local estate kids, destroying the peace at an angler’s pond, do so by ‘detonating the depthcharge of a half brick in the pond’s centre.’ In a tangent on declining sea fish populations, they imagine fish markets instead filled with species from the edgelands’ waters, ‘silver and gunmetal’ bodies replaced with ‘the loose-change colours of roach, minnows, rudd.’
These two writers are avowedly following in the footsteps of romantic poets like John Clare, setting out to praise the edgelands in their book, which, whilst not poetry, is certainly poetic. They don’t shy away though from the seedier side of edgelands life; one path, ‘judging by the amount of used condoms festooning the hedgerow and cigarette butts in the camber, is a well-used dogging spot.’ But the condoms are ‘festooning’ that hedgerow, like a kind of unexpected bunting; the writers are not passing judgement on this landscape and its inhabitants, rather observing and quietly celebrating. They explicitly distance themselves from the new crew of self-appointed psychogeographers, or ‘deep topologists,’ who often use edgelands as a backdrop for depressing analyses of the state of life in and around cities.
In the end, and to my delight, Paul nudged his foot up against Michael’s, and exhorted readers of the book to look closely at their shoes. If you want clues to which of us wrote each section, he smiled, think of these shoes and you’ll figure it out. So I am setting out through their edgelands exploration with grey suede and chestnut leather in mind, imagining those well-turned toes poking into elder bushes, dangling down canal sides, treading the paths that lead to places with no name.