My good friend Steve has let me borrow a book that he thought might suit me. “Edgelands” by poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. I’m not much into poetry but this book is prose. Not quite sure how one writes a book with someone else but they seem to have managed it seamlessly. I’ve really enjoyed it and what shows how good it was that it sent me off in other directions to look for things I knew little about. Including the authors.
If, like me you like to see broken down old sheds, and find beauty in broken down buildings and barns then this is worth a read. It’s an appreciation of the broken bike that finds itself in an unusual place, and how there’s an untold story behind it. Of places where no one really chooses to go. Waste ground and old industrial sites. It took me back to my childhood in the industrial North West, when it was industrial. Walking past a small boat on the Gloucester to Sharpness canal the other day I got a whiff of coal burning and that took me back in an instant, rather like this book.Burning coal: not something one comes across these days. Recent lock down has involved exercise locally and walks to the airport and it’s environs. Here are indeed edgelands. Plenty of broken down sheds, as well as park homes which also count but are generally in very good and tidy order, well cared for and inhabited mainly by elderly people with little means. I’ve spent walking holidays getting more excited by a broken down Volvo truck than the view over the Mediterranean. Discovering a broken down East German Trabant in an olive field in Sardinia was a real highlight for me. So you can see where I’m coming from and these two poets find as much poetry in the subject as I do.
I was also asked this week what my favourite food was when I was a child, and how I got to school. That took me back too. I went to school in what seemed to be a Hilman Minx Police Van, or what they called a ‘shooting brake’ in those days. It was big enough to accommodate a few unbelted 5 and 6 year olds to go to the Barber Bridge Methodists School a mere 5 miles away. We all behaved ourselves as we thought we were being driven by a policeman, but he was probably just a uniformed civilian officer or cadet from the police training school where my father and the other kid’s fathers used to spend their time teaching new recruits the finer points of policing. So I went to and from school in a police car. It’s only struck me now how odd that is.
My father was promoted and the family moved from what was a rural farmland location to the very centre of the then coal industry on the edge of Wigan. He was back at the sharp end. It was there that one night he had to get my Mum to cut off his tie after a shift where a friendly customer had got hold of each end and pulled them in a gesture of defiance. He claims to have introduced the clip on tie to the Lancashire Force as a result. It was in this area and at this time that pubs closed at 10-30pm and anyone on the streets after 11.30 considered a little dodgy. The local pub had a notice in the window “Clara at the Organ” every night. Clara played to the customers and they all knew that if she stopped then two policemen had just walked in to check for underage drinkers. Everyone seemed to be happy with the arrangement.
The new family house was a semi detached set on what might be described as perfect Edgelands. Scrubby ground outside our modest garden picket fence, broken down cars, disused railway embankments and a view of slag heaps. And coal everywhere. We were in a triangle of railway lines with smoke in every direction. It left sooty spots on my mother’s washing. We could see the huge Heinz Bean factory from out scrubby back garden. Apparently my mother cried for 3 weeks when we moved in, but cried for another 3 weeks when we moved again some years later, as she loved the people there so much. My brother and I moved from playing in open fields and streams in the countryside to running around these Edgelands dry and dusty wastelands surrounding the Rag and Bone yard that faced my mother’s kitchen window. This could so easily have been the model for Steptoe and Son, except there was no son, just Arthur and his wife: Destiny. Not her real name but she was keen on attending funerals in the area, she did n’t seem to need an invite. I recall her coming to the kitchen window asking my mother what she ‘were cuking’. “Pastry” Replied my mother. ” I like doing that too” said Destiny ” Gets me nails clean”.
Here I walked to my new school along the streets of Lower Ince, calling at my friend Tom’s house on the way where there was usually time for a quick piece of hot toast done on the banked up coal fire that glowed like a forge in his tiny living room. His dad was a miner so they made sure they used their coal allowance. Central Heating was what you got from porridge.
Each time my father was promoted, he and the family moved. He was promoted a lot. Each time we moved Aunty Winnie made a pie. A meat and potato pie. She’d bring it round to the ‘new’ house and complain about her corset or her feet as she walked up to the front door with large pie in hand. I have no idea how she made it, but these days it might be described as a heady mix of potato chunks and carrot suffused in a dark sauce with delicate chunks of beef topped with a golden crust of home made shortcrust pastry, best consumed with a side of pickled red cabbage: sublime. Edgeland’s best.
If you feel like a trip to the Edgelands you’ll find this a fascinating book and you may discover more about yourself, just like I did.
“Edgelands” Journeys into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts published by Vintage