Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London
by Gareth E. Rees Illustrated by Ada Jusic
(Influx Press, out now)
In 1981, I was kicked out of Uganda with only an air ticket to London and an address in Hackney on a scrap of paper. Thus I arrived in E9, straight from the up-country swamps of the Victoria Nile where I’d been teaching in a missionary school. Of English cities I knew nothing. After a week on a stranger’s sofa in Shoreditch, I found a crummy bedsit off Mare Street. From there I pounded the paving slabs, rather desperate in my search for a bolt hole, a landscape, a palimpsest on which to continue the long struggle towards poetic expression begun beside the River Nile. I was still in a self-induced period of non-angling, but my first explorations led me inexorably to water. The homing instinct quivering like a divination. As soon as I stepped onto the towpath of the Hackney Regents Canal, I followed it as if my life depended on it. Reaching the Lea Navigation at Old Ford seemed as adventurous as all my walks through war torn Uganda. The next day I borrowed a 1940s ladies bicycle, complete with basket and hitching hooks for loose skirts down the crossbar. This time I followed the Lea Navigation as far as the Hackney Marshes. Along the way I was spat upon, had bottles thrown at me by lurking drunks, was shown a knife blade, threatened by Dr Martin, and called every obscenity under the sun. I think I understood, having lived beside that feverish swamp in Busoga Province, so I saved up my dole and got the next Aeroflot back to East Africa.
Then, in 1985, I was kicked out of Uganda once more, lucky to be alive. This time I found myself in a bedsit round the back of Victoria Park. Once I’d signed on, I set about haunting the Marshes properly prepared, still in search of those localized, elusive poetics. It was an easier fit than I imagined, after the malarias and the surrealistic violence of wandering ex-Colonial East Africa. And there was nowhere else as apocalyptically ambiguous to draw me, or compel me, towards writing something continued from a corrupt, crazy and feverish continent. I filled notebooks like I’d never done before and never have since, with observations, epiphanies, encounters, nightmares and images of people, ghosts, decay, water. In such a place these things stick to you like the grime up your nostrils, the filth on your collar. I began to fish again, catching carp in the Hackney Regents and the Walthamstow reservoirs, eels by night in the Lea Navigation, chub in the marshes back of the filter beds, barbel in the concrete culverts of the Flood Relief. Every day was a drama on the edge of something worse. That place does something to the mind unless you abandon it to the sauvage. Of course, the first chance I had, I quit London never to return, just to shake off the influence of fear, the fascination with the sick. But for nearly thirty years since, I’ve written and rewritten that apocalyptic novel set along those waterways, on the marshes, the Walthamstow reservoirs, the Lesney toy factory, the café that used to sit on the towpath at the Springfield Marina where I met an identical twin of the Broadmoor kind who’d psyched her sister’s boyfriends to death. I tried and failed with the Marshland, wondering what more could be said, and how on earth to say it.
Then Jeff sent me a copy of Marshland, Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London by Gareth E. Rees. In 2008, Rees stumbled across the place with the same accidental fatalism. It became a similar literary obsession, but Rees was more game than I, and he penetrates that invisible barrier on a world that so often holds lesser writers back. Once achieved, the place is his for the writing.
Marshland is an ambitious project, attempting to be all things to one place, though the subtitle is perhaps misleading. Besides the Dreams and Nightmares, there is a central reality which utterly convinces. This is probably the most vivid, the most concrete, and I use the word cautiously and deliberately, narrative running throughout the book. These chapters are like fever in remission and are done with awful clarity. Unlike the Marshland I knew, a place still in decline, neglected, to a certain extent forgotten and left to its own devices, Rees’s Marshland is the last bastion of wild London, already seized by Olympic megalomaniacs and threatened by merciless urban invaders. The book is thus a chronicle of momentous corruption, almost neo-Victorian in its exposure of the lost tribes and the false philanthropy of developers, to the final detriment of those who assert their ancient rights as commoners within the boundaries of the Lammas Lands.
To pull off such a narrative, you have to pursue a kind of ritual séance a with a place. However impossible a task, your duty is to summon spirits. Micro poetry or single protagonist doesn’t do. Rees goes for a whole spectrum of expression, from Modernism to New Weird, Psychogeographics to Cryptozoology. Often accompanied by his faithful dog Hendrix, he takes us into true black holes of Metropolitan dystopia, futuristic visions of cubist dimension, surrealistic fracturings of history, tribal zombies and feral metamorphosis. The accomplishment of Marshland is that we follow and suspend our existentialist disgust to witness the fall of one of the last great uncivilized pockets of a once great London.
Marshland begins in symbolic initiation; Rees is dangled upside down by the legs over the Lea Navigation by a passer by, after his dog Hendrix falls in to the water. Rees only discovers the symbolism later; how the act has bound him to the place. The day he handed Marshland to his publisher, he joined an assembly on the Marshes, there to evoke an ancient ritual to establish the rights of commoners by marking the boundaries of the Lammas Lands, accomplished by dangling children by the legs over the marks.
Within such boundaries, Rees asserts that the Marshes themselves compelled the writing of this book. It feels driven. For the most part, the reader is equally compelled. From the exhilarating images of decay in A Walk by the River, or the poetry of litter in Trekkers, at no point does Marshland slacken or escape our attention. Every phrase has organic elegance.
Its structure is contrapuntal, the psycho and the geography in alternate chapters, or fiction and non-fiction if you like. In the latter, a man and his dog set out to encounter that day’s stylistic trope. This is the topside, the overtones, weird or frightening though they may be; junk food wildlife, the derelict Matchbox toy car factory, post-rave Zombies in a heat wave, gay Arabs in flagrante suspended from trees in fellatio, a teenage gang setting off for a shootout in a sunny park, cows in the enclosure, post-industrial signage or the insecure hinterland where recurring animas from imagined strata elsewhere in the book are spotted in the corner of Rees’s eye. These chapters effortlessly collect the official local history, the second layer in the “deep map” of “folklore and weird fiction”. Here we learn of the mass dumping of blitz rubble and shrapnel on the marshes; of bombs transported there for defusing; outrageous biographies of religious conmen; or that the first aircraft built and flown by a Briton took off here, in 1909, piloted by Alliot Verdon Roe, founder of the AVRO aviation company which later produced the Lancaster bomber. The beauty of the book is that there is always something interesting or startling, where the mind is engaged or the senses are ambushed. Rees flouts the edge of danger too, and when necessary, acting like a cornered rat himself, he always responds with the deadly image, the perfect phrase.
The alternate shadow chapters throw things up. These are the weird fictions, the variations. Some are less successful than others, though they still remain essential to the identity of the book, the environ itself. Tracking the way the past spills out through urban edgelands, Rees employs the psychedelic, the horror-Gothic, the post-modernist breakthrough. It is here we encounter incarnations of the folklore or the history. Harvey Hazlehurst, Victorian Chief Supervisor of the Middlesex Filter Beds and Octavius Whipple, disgraced diplomat, are unlikely guides to 1861, but they reappear as time travellers in the 21st century after falling from a narrow boat, a double-take on the Catweazle theme which ultimately relies on predictable anachronism in its craving to become Steampunk. The effect is nonetheless disconcerting for the reader, and Rees’s message is at all times a reminder that meddling with the marsh is not without subconscious menace from the past. In a Twilight Zone spoof, Biomass, a yuppy couple in a new flat built on the site of the Lesney factory are themselves incarnations of former employees. Their new life implodes as time stands still and the recent past reclaims them. Biomass is a justly indignant evocation of superimposition, callous redevelopment. The new apartments were built on the site of the Lesney factory which was demolished in 2010.
There is, perhaps, an issue of weak endings in the fictions, stories which burn out after brilliance and energy and some truly disturbing dialogue. There isn’t always enough in the frame to tide over that weakness. The fictional echoes are often hollow, literal surrealisms, the B movie flip sides of the deep map instead of authentic interpretations. Teetering on the verge of failure, Ursus Rising, about a bear in the blitz staggering in off the marshes during an air raid, is still marvellously unsettling in its brilliance, but Life Between Epochs and Naja’s Ark are flat and unconvincing, the former a Victorian emporium of strange-worlds cliché, the latter too ordinary in its post-apocalyptic inversions, while The Fires of London is nothing if not crudely whimsical. The fictions are sporadically linked, which allows the book its width. Marsh Meat follows the life of Albie Moxley, the boy who found the bear paw in the rubble of the house in Ursus Rising. A backward child who practices eccentric taxidermy, he works as a broom hand in the Lesney factory in the 1960s. Haunting the marsh in bearskins at night, he encounters other displaced humans in the act of metamorphosis. Post-animalistic mating, he turns into a bear himself, is hunted by vigilante parents, but finds sanctuary in a former story, Life Between Epochs. For me such symmetry errs toward unsatisfactory claustrophobia, though others may find the unexplained an alluring cryptic. Marsh Meat is otherwise memorable, inventive and insightful and genuinely unsettling in its visceral ambiguities until that final paragraph. However, The Rabbit Hole, so beautifully distilled, is a top layer chapter where the time-slip succeeds, even if the conceit is repeated from elsewhere in the fictions. If the counterpoint exposes friction within the structure, the addition of libretto and sound tracking after the Epilogue raises an uncertainty about the project which isn’t necessary. There is such a powerful core to the writing in this book, that even if I lament the fiddling at its edges, the central anxiety is irresistible.
My one sour note concerns the rather scruffy illustrations. Rees is an acute observer, able to pick apart his environs with craft and precision. He deserves the same stark etchiness of his imagery, not these drab, inappropriate approximations. If the text needed enlightening, then an editor might have insisted on a more astute illustrator. A poor editorial decision led to an entire chapter in bande dessinée, The Raving Dead, which is just dead embarrassing in its visual and textual naivety. Today, more than ever in the history of publishing, the small press is the last home to innovative and important literature. Influx Press is no exception, and Marshland is an exquisitely written book déclassé by poor design after such insightful commissioning.
My criticisms are no reason not to buy it, quite the opposite. Whatever it is, New Weird, Cryptozoology, Psychogeography or Deep Map, Marshland is simply essential reading for anyone engaged in locality, the literature of place, the sociology of hinterlands, the pressure points between the human and the natural or just lovers of darned good writing. In providing a template for its portrayal, Rees achieves more than the rendering of Hackney Marshes into a universal edgeland; he gives it ecological priority and describes a deep felt community at peril, such peril that time itself is apt to burst its seams and spill up past events of a similar hew in order to defend heritage. It’s an intriguing idea. The chapter Endgames contextualizes that fragility of any pact between commoners and corporate. It has to be resisted. The past is only ever there to be bulldozed and we forget it for a fistful of change. The Olympic obscenity rolls on elsewhere, and Marshland is a beacon of warning to all communities in its path.