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