The third section of Three Men on the Edge (I’ll get to the second section next time), is a sequence of 36 micro-fictions called ‘Chewing Glass’, and it revolves around the life of Martyn.
Martyn is a young, melodramatic and impotent artist in love with his best friend Anja, and probably too her husband Rob.
He struggles to reconcile his love-hate feelings towards them, barely keeping a grip on the violent impulses that shadow his day-to-day routines: even at the supermarket checkout, he’ll daydream about stabbing people in the eye. In his love-sickness, he swings between depressed inertia and manic productivity.
At night, he uses one of Anja’s leotards as a mask to help him sleep; he studies yoga and breath-exercises with her, beguiled by the other lycra-wearing participants; he dreams up non-existent ex-girlfriends to bolster his public reputation.
When he’s not arm-wrestling or bear-hugging Rob, he’s sickened simply by the noise of him eating, or talking, or walking. (The man is insufferable, despite his physical charms, and it makes no sense for Anja to be married to him!)
But when out in Rickmansworth with Anja, Martyn lives in dread of being greeted by other members of his community therapy group – such is his lack of self-acceptance; he lies to his doctor, because he doesn’t want to be sent back to hospital; he fantasises that he’s Odysseus – and Anja Penelope, fending off suitors as he travels homeward – all the while not realising that Anja is perfectly content in her marriage.
A self-deluded fantasist then, and hardly coping with life; but Martyn is intensely creative too, and all his neuroses feed into a rich seam of art projects – watercolours of the Grand Union Canal, oil portraits of Anja, an Olympian project to document the local lakes throughout the seasons.
Will Martyn keep it together long enough for his artistic career to take off? Will he confess to Anja his passionate admiration? Will he try to break up her marriage to Rob? Or will he lose his nerve and be provoked into violence?
Below is a Superman-themed micro-fiction from the sequence, first published in Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief (Flash: the International Short-Short Story Press, 2017)
Sometimes Anja praises Martyn so highly she makes him feel like Superman. He has the Superman dream always the same way: not the caped crusader saving the civilised world, but Clark Kent the reporter wearing preppy spectacles and befuddled by Lois Lane—except Lois is Anja—and Anja’s nipples are made of kryptonite. But this is a dream and Lois-Anja is also somehow Lex Luthor at one and the same time—looking like Gene Hackman with his big-collared 1970s shirt—and Lois-Anja Hackman takes off Clark Kent’s glasses, kisses his brow sadly, then draws his head closer to her deadly, trembling chest.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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)
“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.
In my new book Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, June 2018), 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. My hope is that it offers something very different from the usual experience of fiction – or of prose poetry.
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: