I know why I’m alive, why I want to be! Life is a blind headsman with a dull axe who tries to kill you many times, and though there are so many things ringing in my head, their peals and counter-peals, their changes and counter-changes, their plain bob majors, until my mind is a hellish jangle of wedding-Saturdays and a choir of imps telling me why I should not be, why I should die. However, if I can find a hill and punish myself up its grey, green sides, not stopping even if my own breath stabs me deep to the heart, pressing my aching feet on to a drumbeat only I can hear, and if I can reach the top or sometimes if I turn my head and am taken mid-pace by a burst of horizon through the trees, I say – I live here! I live here! That’s why I live. Anyone who can look down from a hill to a city, or look up from a town to a hill, may wonder what lies between.
I do. I lie between.
I have lain and lied between ever since I was small; I still lie between England and Scotland (with a scarlet splash of France, daring, incongruous, bof, zut!) somehow, yes I do, but when I was little and the hot summer came when stag beetles crissed and crossed the concrete flags and penny-piece raindrops hammered making great nail-head shapes and sounds, lapping and overlapping until the whole pavement was brown and shining, then, then, those were the days when I could walk and walk. I could walk and walk way beyond the cricket club, way up along Corkscrew Hill, past woods which hinted at Old England, past playing fields which were the flat, green temples to William Webb Ellis, past another copse through which I could see new houses (I pretended they were the angles of a castle), past a park and a convent, and down a lane which went on for ever to the downs. And I could turn and come back!
In those days the margin was harder, clearer; but still you could get on a Green Line bus or take the tube to the end of the line and at that terminus you could find the start of a footpath. That footpath would make a few angles around the back of shops and lock-ups, a straight alongside a playing field, and then maybe meander alongside a stream, pass a copse, skirt meadows sweet with the breath of cows, to a place where the soughing of leaves and grasses and the trickling of water obliterated the mechanical sounds of humanity. It was always a place of questions for me – I mean banal questions like should I wear a skirt and sandals to go there or jeans and hiking boots, or should I take sandwiches, stuff like that. My fictional character Ashe Sobiecki knew this:
“There’s a place where you notice our suburb begin to thin out. It’s a bit further now, because I think the car-park for the new garden centre reaches there. It’s not exactly the countryside, not yet, but it’s like the town isn’t holding on to its place any more, it’s beginning to lose its grip. There are buildings that aren’t quite farms, but might have a few sheep and ponies. There are stands of trees which aren’t quite woods, and there are tracks which aren’t quite lanes. You mustn’t be surprised to see ducks turning a flood-puddle into a pond as if by magic, or rabbits here and there; and once, one cold day when there was still snow on the ground, I saw a stoat in its winter ermine. I have even seen a sparrowhawk take a pigeon. When I was younger, I always liked to think that this area had a magic to it, because it was where something became something else. I used to notice things, I had my own little landmarks which told me whereabouts on a scale I had in my head, between town and country, the exact spot was. When we did percentages in school I used them in the scale. I graded the places by smell too. There’s a place where it smells of sheep droppings, and that’s about eighty percent countryside, and another where I can smell some sort of lubricating oil, and that’s seventy-five percent town. And sounds too. You never quite lose the noise of the traffic in the background, but it’s definitely louder the closer you get to the main road – well it would be – and in the opposite direction there’s the place where you can sometimes hear curlews in spring. That is so cool, that sound. Well, I like it round there. It’s not just the landscape, not just the smells and sounds, and the birds and stuff like that. It’s a feeling I get. I have always had it. It’s being right on the edge of something. I know it is only the countryside it is on the edge of, but it’s the edge that counts. It’s like one of those graphs that go along in a kind of gradual slope and then shoot up suddenly. It’s like that only upside down, so that the slope wants to pull you. I like being right where the pull is strong. It feels dangerous. But it’s a dangerous idea, not a real danger, if you see what I mean.”
Yes yes, Ashe, I felt that way too! I felt that if I kept walking up Layhams Road and into the Downs I was somehow walking on an overlay which had been placed upon history, and that if I pushed hard enough something miraculous and perilous would happen. Or I would keep walking until I reached Biggin Hill, one or the other.
This now is the twenty-first century, and places on this edge have changed again since I walked through them as a youngster. To Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, authors of Edgelands*, this fluid, shifting, abandoned and re-occupied, marginal zone is the place of power stations, scrap yards, water treatment plants, container depots, incongruously just-out-of-town shopping centres. Yet still they have a glamour that is hard to put your finger on. A new housing estate can grow up just where you remember a deserted holiday camp having been once. A farm, a seaside park, a railway station can decay and disappear as completely as a Highland Clearance village; a mead full of cowslips can become a wedge between a factory and a bypass, and then can be transformed into a car-breakers’ yard, and then bulldozed into annihilation, flattened, grasses and wild flowers re-establishing themselves. It is as though we watch a tide, or the breathing of a great animal.
* Michael Symmons Roberts & Paul Farley, 2011, Edgelands, London, Jonathan Cape.