Living on the Edge

I grew up with a form of identity confusion.

My family home was in Northwood, in the former postal county of Middlesex, a region on the Northwest edge of Greater London.

“Middlesex” belonged to London. But we had a Hertfordshire phone number.

We lived on a quiet street. But 50 yards from a fairly busy main road.

If I walked away from my house, in one direction I moved towards the densely-packed suburbs of Greater London; in another direction I could find a series of splendidly landscaped golf courses; another direction took me into the heart of a private housing estate of detached, mostly mock-Tudor properties with large grounds; elsewhere nearby I could walk our Bernese Mountain dog through thick woods into unkempt fields whose ownership seemed unidentified – apparently common, wildmeadow land.  In Northwood, we were serviced by the Metropolitan Underground Line. Except it was overground. We called it the train (not “the tube”) – I didn’t understand the difference between real trains and my tube-trains until adulthood.

Welcome to the identity confusions of the suburbs, where you are neither one thing nor the other.

Later, after a few years of moving around, I bought my first flat not far from Northwood, in a commuter town called Rickmansworth, which lay about 3 miles northwest – a couple of stops further out on the Metropolitan Line.

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Rickmansworth is in a valley where three rivers converge – literally the Three Rivers District of Hertfordshire. They feed the Grand Union Canal as it passes through between London and Birmingham.

ricky1 - canal

It also marks the northern beginning of a remarkable series of over 60 (yes, sixty) lakes (former quarry pits – whose extracted gravel was used to build the original Wembley Stadium) that combine to form Colne Valley Park, a zone of managed wildness stretching many miles from Rickmansworth in the north to the Thames in the south, towards Slough in the west, and Heathrow in the east.

Despite the proximity of all this beautiful, watery countryside, Rickmansworth is densely housed, and expanding – a population of 15,000 in the 2001 census, 24,000 in 2011.

Ricky High Street

I lived in Rickmansworth from 2007 to 2016, and experienced there the strange, unsettling territory of a true “Edgelands”, an experience neither urban nor rural, neither truly London nor the Hertfordshire countryside. I had to start writing about it.

The “Edgelands” are a concept first defined in 2002 by the writer Marion Shoard in her essay of the same name (published in Jennifer Jenkins (ed.), Remaking the Landscape (2002)):

“The apparently unplanned, certainly uncelebrated and largely incomprehensible territory where town and country meet… it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks … golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland.”

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In its own low-key way, Rickmansworth can lay claim to all of that. I’m not sure where exactly I first heard the term “Edgelands” but I do know that my first immersion into researching the concept was a book written by poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness (2011)) that further opened my eyes and ears to the territory I was living in.

I was fascinated by the catalogue of landscape features that Symmons Roberts and Farley identified as classic “Edgelands” elements: landfill, water, pylons, allotments, verges, canals, wasteland, woodlands, hotels, retail parks, industrial estates, golf ranges, airports etc. And I found the descriptions themselves captivating, possessed of an ungainly, mythical beauty: “the fringes of English towns and cities, where urban and rural negotiate and renegotiate their borders…” (p.5), “the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism…” (p.12)

ideal place for recycling in town - there's almost always space

“In the A-Zs of major English cities, there are always pages where the circuitry of streets gives way to blank grid squares, peppered with nameless ponds, industrial parks, nurseries and plantations…” (p.20), “seldom visited wastelands bypassed by the flows of commerce and leisure, the landfill sites and blank unnamed pools of dark standing water…” (p.23), “this is a different wildnerness… It has the echoing silence of miles of empty car parks, dark and locked glass offices, pockets of woodland and strips of standing water.” (p.267)

Their book was the perfect introduction to the idea of “Edgelands”, and I heartily recommend it. It’s a future classic of landscape writing to be mentioned in the same breath as its acknowledged ancestor The Unofficial Countryside (1973), by Richard Mabey, who pioneered writing about the same kind of geography before anyone else had thought to celebrate it.

possible cover3 - signpost.JPGMy book Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, June 2018) took me six and a half years to write, and in it I’ve tried to celebrate the strange hinterland that is Rickmansworth, neither properly the suburbs of a big city nor exactly the countryside. As research, I often went for walks with notebook or camera in hand, documenting the landscape around me and trying to find ways to bring it into the context of my fiction. (I think the people I passed may sometimes have looked at me oddly). Three Men on the Edge attempts to capture the split self of the town as a character in its own right, divided between its canals, lakes, fields and woodlands on the one hand, and its supermarkets, commuter train lines, and busy cafés on the other.

The book also has another in-betweenness. It’s very much a literary hybrid: a novella composed of three linked sequences of miniature stories, informed by the techniques of prose poetry. I could suggest with a fair amount of conviction that you won’t have read anything similar before.

If you enjoy books that put landscape and environment at the centre, or if you have ever experienced the strange and ambivalent emotions of suburban life, or if you enjoy the “edgelands” of unusual forms of writing, I hope you might find Three Men on the Edge an interesting kind of territory to encounter.

More details about the book, from the publisher, and from me, here:

Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018)

https://michaelloveday.com/fiction/

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Tuberous Begonia

Below are two additional stories I wrote during Christmas 2017 for the Denholm section of Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018). Both of the stories focused on Denholm and his wife Joan, and I felt that they brought out new elements in Joan’s personality. I sent them to my editor Sarah Leavesley, to discuss including them in the manuscript. We had a long email exchange, but in the end it was felt that it was too late to risk changing the manuscript – we might, in hindsight, regret altering Joan’s role at the last minute. It was decided that it would be more prudent to publish them separately. So, here’s the second of the two stories, in which Denholm and Joan consider whether to move into a retirement village. It seems to be particularly harsh on Watford. Now, as it happens, I like Watford, and have many fond memories of time spent there in both childhood and adulthood. Denholm and Joan, however, are less convinced.

 

Tuberous Begonia

Even when Denholm’s shielded by Croxley Green, and facing away, dreaming of the Chiltern Hills, Watford’s shops, small industry and relentless housing cast a morbid urban shadow. It might as well be London. Nevertheless, he subscribes to the Watford Observer – the only credible local paper. And this morning, while Joan deadheads the triple blooms of the tuberous begonia (female, female, male; female, female, male), his eye has been drawn to an advert for retirement living – maybe Phil had the right idea.

On the outskirts of Watford, between the M25 and the abandoned golf course, homes are being built. Once flung out by London’s centrifuge, he’d thought never to move, but perhaps this new village is reality for threadbare old age.

He looks out through the patio windows: his wife stoops with garden shears in one hand, the other now massaging her hip as she grimaces upright. She scrunches some petals in her fist, lifts them to her nose, inhales. Her brow seems furrowed.

There’ll be coded gates, a residents’ pool, gardeners tending communal lawns, porters to deal with Joan’s demands, and a driving range at which he could refine his swing. A certain, leisurely lure is undeniable, though he can’t bear to leave before his matchstick model’s complete, and surely he won’t find a neighbour as hospitable as Faith. But maybe that’s the point.

The back door opens, and in walks Joan, still carrying her fistful of petals, sniffing them carefully.

“The begonia smells strange this year. As if it’s rotting, though it looks alright. For goodness’ sake, Denholm, come out to the garden with me. Get some exercise.”

“Do you think we should move?” he ventures, uncertainly. “Something cheaper, near Watford?”

She stares, steps over to him, looks over his shoulder at the newspaper.

“Good God. Not that, not yet,” she says, then pauses. “But we do need to move. It’s time you considered it. Recently, you seem addled.”

Humming softly, she turns her wrist. One by one, the crushed petals tumble onto his head.

The Belly of the Whale

Over Christmas 2017 I wrote two additional stories for the Denholm section of Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018). Both of the stories focused on Denholm and his wife Joan, and I felt that they brought out new elements in Joan’s personality. I sent them to my editor Sarah Leavesley, to discuss including them in the manuscript. We had a long email exchange, but in the end it was felt that it was too late to risk changing the manuscript – we might, in hindsight, regret altering Joan’s role at the last minute. It was decided that it would be more prudent to publish them separately. So, here’s the first of the two stories, in which Denholm pays a visit to Joan’s loft space. I’ll publish the second later in June.

 

The Belly of the Whale

Indecision creeps higher with each step up the spiral. Above him, a dark square, through which (if he’s quiet) the undulating moans of whalesong can be detected. It’s not often he braves this staircase; its wrought iron curls seem to tighten blackly round him as he climbs. No matter that it’s only there because Joan refused to seek planning permission, and insisted, insisted (against his advice) on claiming the loft space as a room of her own. No matter that invitations to this sanctuary are as grudging as they are rare. Now, he thinks, is surely a safe time – now, when candlelight and incense-fumes have lulled her towards good humour.

Above him, Joan will be spread-eagled on her mat, supine yet strolling along a sun-blissed beach, feeling the sand between her toes, beguiled by the spill of the love-struck surf. At last, her pulse will have slowed, her breathing will have lengthened, and, in this mode, she’ll be more likely to welcome him ascending the iron steps in order to talk, in order to confront the gap between them.

He waits at the entrance – waits for the whalesong to die, and for Joan to emerge from the humpback’s belly. She must waken, but not waken too much – a certain drowsiness will aid his agenda. He’s almost unmanned by the billowing aroma – ‘Deep Forest’? ‘Wild Grove’? – he never remembers. He studies the ribs of the roofspace (once devilled by damprot), and runs his hand over the flooring (no further trace of dead ladybirds). The stair creaks under his foot. A sudden shift in the dark. Denholm? Who’s there? The voice is tense, hard-edged, a barrier awaiting him. He stiffens, neither inside nor outside her zone, doubting his mission, his head claimed by attic darkness, his body by the landing below.