Edgescapes

Saturday, 19 February 2011

It's a little before lunch on a wet Saturday. Being a fully employed parent, Saturday mornings are something of a ritual: late start, slow breakfast with papers, frenzied cleaning of house while daughter shuffles round getting ready, a dog walk, more coffee and the papers and then lunch. Only I've run out of Saturday Guardian, partly because it's the fashion special, and however hard I try, I just don't get fashion. So I thought I'd blog instead.

In the Review section, which once upon a time I used to write for, was a piece by Rob Macfarlane on a book called Edgelands: Journeys Into England's True Wilderness. The authors, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, don't mean, as I'm sure you've guessed, the Flow Country, or An Teallach, they mean the urban fringe of largely northern cities. As someone who actually lives on the fringe of a northern city, I immediately thought of the lyric by my fellow Sheffieldier Jarvis Cocker: 'Everybody hates a tourist / Especially one who thinks it's all such a laff.'

I can almost guess the content of this book, partly because as Macfarlane points out, this is a well-worn groove first gouged out by Richard Mabey in his 1970s book the Unofficial Countryside. If you've got any interest in landscape then the 'routine prejudices' the book sets out to challenge will likely be well known to you already. The deconstruction of landscape, particularly in the decaying liminal spaces on the fringes of cities, is now terra-far-too-cognita for my likeing, but Macfarlane says the book is well written, and from the examples he gives I can see what he means. (The term 'Edgescapes', by the way, is my contribution to the psycho-geographic-babbling such authors rely on to add glitter to obvious ideas. Looks good in PowerPoint.)

What caught my attention was the idea that mountains and moorland, in the opinion of the authors, are places for the misanthropic. This is a worrying thought. Not because I think it's true. It can be true, but in my experience you can use wild places to justify any political construct you choose. It's worrying because if that's how popular culture views wild places then they are in real trouble. Who will save places that are inhabited by the misanthropic?

By misanthropic, of course, the authors mean right-wing. I can see why they might imagine this. On television these days, wild places are either devoid of people or else the stage where public-school stunt monkeys like Bear Grylls perform. The 'wild' fringes of cities, however, aren't full of the stressed bourgeoisies in overpriced anoraks, but real, down-to-earth Old Labour supporters.

This notion should be resisted. Living in Sheffield, I'm all too aware of the great tradition of radical walkers and writers who located themsevles in the moors outside my city. Class and party was part of that argument, justifiably given the resistance to their presenece. But for me, the value of moors and  mountains is wholly democratic. The people can choose for themselves – where to go, what to do, to loon around, to swim, all the good stuff – without having someone else to do the choosing for them.

Posted by Ed Douglas at 1.48 AM