“Unofficial Britain” by Gareth E. Rees

“If you look closely enough, all landscapes can be fascinating and any object, no matter what its material, can be freighted with meaning.”

This is the most inspiring book I’ve read all year. Writer Gareth E. Rees1 shows, through his wonderfully offbeat travels across Britain, that in a secular age “significance” can be found anywhere, in any sort of landscape. It’s tempting to compose this review solely of extracts from the book, point at them and shout “This! And this!”

Fittingly, for a book that seeks to find (potentially spiritual) significance in the modern and secular, Unofficial Britain seems to be structured like an order of service. Each chapter is like a sermon, and at the end of each comes a poem [which this reviewer could take or leave, to be honest] acting like a hymn, apposite to the subject under discussion.

In a series of themed explorations, he encourages us to see – or even to just imagine – the magic and mystery in our everyday environment. And that, of course, specifically includes those normally overlooked edgelands like roundabouts, ring-roads, tower blocks, car parks and housing estates.

“Underpasses are our holloways. Pylons, chimneys and masts our landmarks. Motorways our great causeways. Roundabouts our stone circles. Multistoreys our crumbling castles. They can be as full of melancholy, magic and mystery as what came before.”

In a recent interview with Folk Horror Revival, Rees says that such landscapes have “…been around long enough to become storied with love, loss, grief, violence, sexual awakenings and rites of passage. The book is an attempt to find some of the fresh shoots of future folklore.”

In Glasgow he examines urban geomancy: the idea that “accidental signs, symbols and juxtapositions can be “read”…allowing us to divine messages from the cosmos”. Stuart Silver, “urban druid” (oh, for a job title like that!) applies paganism to the city. Although conventionally imagined as a belief structure/practice/religion in which nature worship is key, at root early pagans were using their surroundings, which happened to be rural. Silver’s approach is that if you live in a city, that’s your environment, and just because you’re surrounded by concrete rather than trees “doesn’t mean [paganism] cannot adapt to urban structures, or that magic cannot be performed amid tower blocks, motorways, pavements and subways.” Re-harmonising with your environment, whatever that may be, can bring “spiritual and psychological benefits. If a circle can be a sacred space, then any circle can – orbital ring road or roundabout.”

It’s a truism that landscape is a palimpsest, bearing upon it the imprint of multiple histories. Rees goes further, viewing it as being “like a “wormhole” linking different times and different places of living organisms and inanimate objects”. This perhaps helps to explain the phenomenon of housing estate hauntings, which Rees investigates. Ghosts no longer need be associated with the castles and mansions and graveyards of popular imagination:

“There are few parts of this island not trampled by feet, spilled with blood, or marked by stories, even if they have been long forgotten. [They] are perched on dark icebergs of history we shall never know, but whch we might sense occasionally, when the walls shake and voices cry out.”

In Greenock, he wanders off the path into a “thin place”: in Celtic mythology a “porous threshold between the visible world and an otherworld beyond physical reach”. This abandoned alley in the densely-populated central belt of Scotland is “psychologically as remote as the Himalyas” – because it’s an unseen, unconsidered edgeland that’s overgrown and home only to abandoned furniture, litter and the detritus of civilisation. Another type of “thin place” Rees explores is the industrial estate, particularly those around docklands. These post-[heavy] industrial regions are “unsettled” in more than one sense: nobody lives there, but they are also disturbed.

Pace Mark Fisher’s working definition of “hauntology” as pertaining to the eerie sense of a future that never arrived, Rees also visits tower blocks. These were the most obvious symbol of post-war regeneration, and that they became bywords for social deprivation should not tinge the idealism that birthed them. In this sense, their gradual destruction over the last few decades can be viewed as a lost future, hard on the heels of Thatcherism’s destruction of both heavy industry and the social fabric that was woven around it.

(A personal aside: in the mid 90s, early one Saturday morning I took my Olympus to photograph the angles, walls and stairwells of Jamaica Towers, one of the “Alexander Street multis” in Dundee. Alone of the images on that roll of film, when I picked the photos up from Boots they hadn’t been developed. Those multis too are now gone: a double loss.)

The climax of the book is a chapter with the wonderfully ambitious title “An emotional life of the M6”. Nothing bespeaks our era like the internal combustion engine, so it’s a wholly suitable place to bring his investigations to a close. Contrary to the prevailing assumption that motorways are “hinterlands”, anonymous or “non-places”, Rees argues that they each have “distinct narratives, character and identities”, and that the passage of time (a crucial ingredient: time, and the accrual of memories is arguably the catalyst behind how we ascribe significance to places) has transformed motorways “from anodyne super-modern structures into entites with a rich emotional life and powerful resonance in our memories”. We all have associations: memories that only ever flit to the forefront of our minds when we pass this slip-road; that signpost; or this particular view, only ever glimpsed when driving north.

Now some of you good, rational readers you may raise a sceptical eyebrow at this talk of brutalist spirituality and occult roundabouts, and that’s fair enough. But we’re now four decades into an age of unbridled capitalism, which has thrown up concrete and thrown down tarmac in the name of economic growth. It has also co-opted every form of protest against it. This year, like no other, has forced us to consider the realities of this very socio-economic model; the pandemic has also, by necessity, forced us to re-engage with the local. Finding meaning within, or making special, the spaces capitalism leaves behind can therefore become an important act of resistance. If that still doesn’t convince you, consider this:

“Our brains have essentially remained unchanged since the Stone Age. We have the same instinct to seek patterns in the chaos. We still yearn to make sense of the mysteries of existence…these impulses have not died beneath…concrete and tarmac.”

Unofficial Britain needs a place on your bookshelf.

Notes

1 Rees’s story ‘The Knucker’ was one of the outstanding stories in the post-Brexit weird fiction anthology This Dreaming Isle (which I reviewed).

Buy Unofficial Britain. Right now: go on, buy it.

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