They are there; but we rarely see them. Or, rather, we see them but they fail to take root in mind, memory or heart. A soft flicker on the retina while our thoughts are held by other concerns. Yet glance through the windscreen or out of the elevated train window and, chances are, at some stage on our journey we will encounter them. But it is an encounter we are unlikely to recall.
These edge lands – where ‘urban and rural negotiate their borders’ (Farley and Roberts, loc 183) – seem no more than ‘repositories for functions we prefer not to think about’ (Shoard, p.75). Gasometers, electricity sub-stations, security lit business parks, car pounds, sewage works, pylons, razor-tipped fencing and marshalling yards. They circle our towns and cities: uneasy crossing places haunted by ‘the neglected, the disposed of, and the repressed’ (Edensor, p.833). But, if we look carefully and without prejudice, we can recast these ‘unobserved parts of our share landscape as places of possibility, mystery, beauty’ (Farley and Roberts loc 198).
For look beyond the abandoned pallets and rusty JCBs, and vitality, energy and creativity emerge. What more could we expect in the marginal and liminal? Marion Shoard argues how edgelands are rich in plant and wildlife diversity: protected, forgotten and free of monoculture, pesticides and our compulsion to trim and prune. Similarly, Richard Mabey tells how rosebay willow herb and other ‘weed tenantry – ‘green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife’ – proliferated in the bombed out City warehouses and offices of the Blitz (Mabey, p.216). Glimpses of these ruderal fireweeds can still be found. By the ruins of St Alban’s church in Aldersgate, the broken walls of Roman fort and merchants’ houses shelter over 80 different plants with bee-hives too (maintained, fittingly enough, by the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers). Not just ruins, these are ancient edgelands for the original London Wall lies just yards away.
These are also places of ludic potential where ‘dereliction stimulates the imagination’ (Shoard, p.84). In Melanie Manchot’s stunning video installation Tracer (2013), parcour runners move through a series of shifting Gateshead edgelands. De-populated, framed at sunset and snowfall, these spaces of pylon, allotment, bridge, underpass, factory and escalator attract not the passivity of the flaneur nor the shielded gaze of the passer-by but a vivacity of movement and possibility that transforms the marginal to the magical.
Yet these edgelands with their invitation to subversion and transgression also conceal admonitory stories. I come from a generation who may recall – often with a shudder – a series of terrifying Public Information Films that frequently revealed the edgelands as a dangerous zone where injury, disfigurement and death were a mere moment of inattention away. In The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, ‘the unwary, the show off and the fool’ drown in waters fringed by rubbish dump and quarry while the figure of Death watches gleefully on. The bleached colour gives the quality of a sun-faded instamatic print and this queasy nostalgia has been referenced by musicians such as The Advisory Circle and Belbury Poly. With samples of PIFs, library music and forgotten segments of tv Programmes for Schools they create their own eerie sonic edgelands.
These films are fairy stories for a modern age. But for our 1970s Hansel and Gretel, it is not the forest they should be wary of but the gravel pit, the pylon (‘please don’t fly your kite there, Hansel’) and the train track. And here the foe of witch and ogre take more elemental form: water, energy, power. These truly are fairy stories as written by Futurists.
But perhaps the liminality of the edgelands exerts its influence in other ways. We focus on the victims – but what of those left behind? For them, this is surely a rite of passage albeit one that is undesired. Scarred by what they have witnessed, these edgelands are spaces where innocence turns to experience. They carry both the curse and gift of knowledge.
And our places of work have their edgelands too. Hirst and Humphrey describe how a local authority consigned its paper storage unit to the edgelands of a business park: both an operational and physical marginality. This is becoming commonplace. Finance, IT, shared services are increasingly relocated to the edgelands of a town, country or continent. But, in doing this, we should heed Shoard’s warning. She hints that we place our ‘mundane’ activities in the edgelands because we do not esteem them but we:
might all be better off if we both understood better and respected more the apparently mundane yet vital activities which make our society work
Such respect should accord to every function and operation of the organisations of which we are part. We may forget our edgelands; but they will rarely forget – or forgive – us.
Even in one building though, we can locate edgelands. Think of lifts, basements, the maintenance workshop or, indeed, the humble photocopier room. Utilitarian in design and decor, it seldom provides a home to the artwork that decorates other walls or offers panoramic views of tower and sky. But, as wasteland attracts the detritus we casually discard there – fridges, tyres, thieved and ransacked slot machines – so here we find the box of Christmas decorations and a rag-tag of superseded office equipment. And, as we know from apocryphal tales of office parties, these humble backwaters generate their own transgressive stories.
Other stories surface too. In my first job, I worked in a university library. Delivering a trolley of books across the campus, I was forced to use an open, trellised goods lift. As we pulled at the stiff and unyielding doors, my experienced colleague told me of a student who, using the lift one October evening when everyone else in the building had gone home, became trapped in the metalwork and bled to death between floors. His ghost, my colleague solemnly confided, was occasionally sensed, especially ‘when the evenings draw in’.
We might read this story in various ways. Perhaps it served as a rite of passage – an initiation to the community. If I accepted the tale with amused equanimity, the test had been passed. Or, perhaps, it served as my own Public Information Film. An admonitory narrative that provided both a warning against inattention and insight to the culture of the university: health and safety is treated seriously here and transgression carries sanctions. It also, perhaps, hints at the ambiguity that infuses all edgelands. For this is an environment where both the rational and the irrational co-exist.
And, as I sense this is a question you might well ask: even today, when faced by one of those old, open, trellised lifts, I prefer to take the stairs. Especially in October, ‘when the evenings draw in’.
Edensor, T. (2005) ‘The Ghosts of Industrial Ruins: Ordering and Disordering Memory in Excessive Space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), pp. 829–849.
Farley, P. and Roberts, M.S. (2011), Edgelands. Jonathan Cape
Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting Power in its Place: The Centrality of Edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.
Mabey, R. (2010), Weeds: the story of outlaw plants. Profile Books
Shoard, M. (2000) ‘Edgelands of promise’, Landscapes, 2(August), pp. 74–93.