I assumed I lived in a totalitarian city. London’s green spaces were prescribed by municipal entities, landscaped by committees, furnished with bollards and swings. There was no wilderness. There was no escape. You couldn’t simply decide to wander off plan. Or so I thought.
In Marshland psychogeographer Gareth Rees, who writes and blogs under the name Hackneymarshman, is documenting a process of deep mapping: a methodology towards engaging the subject’s intellectual, emotional and aesthetic relationships with the built environment and understanding how they evolve in the light of interior experience affected by exterior change. These relationships form a complex perspective, one founded on personal and public history interweaving and changing each other, on the desire to take on the constructed environment and re-imagine it politically rather than passively be guided, taught, shunted hither-and-thither and organised into a state of manufactured consent.
So what is Marshland?
It’s psychogeography in an accessible, non-academic form. It takes the subject out of the lecture hall and applies it to the everyday world beyond the campus. This book is an undecidable: is it memoir, popular history, official history, a story cycle, a novel, a comic, a prose poem or a handbook for the dériviste on the subject of transfiguring the environment? Well it’s all of these but none of them.
So what is Marshland not?
It isn’t obviously Situationist, at least not in the sense of directly conforming to its ideology or continuing its programme of revolutionary praxis. The Ackroydian strain of post-Blake English romanticism is entirely absent, as is Sinclair’s post-Sebald take on the dérive and the urban encounter. Surprisingly, perhaps, given the form of the book, it is not interested in the Earth Mysteries variant of psychogeography. There is nary a ley line to be seen on the marshes, their weirdness notwithstanding.
Rees’s territory encompasses Hackney, Walthamstow and Leyton marshes, bounded by Homerton, Lower and Upper Clapham, Wick Woodland and Walthamstow. This is a place where moribund pubs, secret rave hideouts, cruising grounds, benches for the relief of inveterate drinkers, a church associated with a 19th century religious cult, Victorian filter beds memorialised with piscine statuary, a post-war trading estate, an island bird sanctuary, the River Lea and the Lea Navigation are circumscribed within the author’s reconfigured version of the locale.
This strange land, somewhere between the bucolic and the urban, between the rural past and the metropolitan future, survives as a residual form: slowly dying yet defiantly alive, almost hidden yet irrupting like a dream of a forgotten past into the neurotically ordered present. It is a wild zone where the elements of human motivation thrive outside of the official narratives.
Random gunfire is a faint reverberation of the Blitz. The discarded heads of bears are tragic analogues of prehistoric bear fossils supposedly unearthed in the Lea Valley, possible victims of circus turf wars. Stranger still is The Beast of Hackney Marshes (one of John A. Keel’s Strange Creatures from Time and Space?) – a huge bearlike creature spotted on the marshes numerous times, even as recently as 2009 if the blogs are to be believed. This is typical of all those half-forgotten tales of fell beasts roaming open spaces, ravening hell-hounds on the trail of doomed souls, Alien Big Cats dropped off in the middle of nowhere by UFOs. These fascinations of Forteans and cryptozoologists are for the rest of us just more lumber to be stored in the lightless basements of our collective psyche: not labelled legibly, not organised into clear categories by some rational internal curator. All kinds of cultural detritus build up down there, every urban legend, folk devil, chimera and mass hallucination floating about in the great meme-engine of the human imagination. Marshland is a trapdoor to that basement.
Other denizens of this almost preternatural edgeland seem equally exotic and unlikely. Brown-skinned men indulge in arborially suspended fellatio: a superficially surprising image, given the popular tropes of the middle class white man nipping into the local cottaging venue after work before going home to domestic conformity; the ageing, raddled roué cruising for rent boys in Piccadilly; or the seedy aristocratic remittance man buying Arab street boys in Tangier. Such an encounter upsets all our received wisdoms about ethnicity, religion, class, gender and morality that limit ‘acceptable’ gay modes of being to a safe dominant bourgeois ideology of metropolitan lifestyle choice and domesticated bohemianism. Arab refugees and migrant workers meeting for athletic sexual pursuits in a semi-urban wood are not part of this picture. Hoodies, boozers, ravers and a Rastaman with a wayward dog that drags Hendrix, the writer’s dog, into the river inhabit this domain of dumped safes, floating footballs, windblown carrier bags and thriving riverine wildlife.
The eternal difficulties of the male-female relationship are echoed in the power structures of the factory and the still-taboo interracial sexual encounter. Childhood nostalgia, evoked by the old Lesney factory where Matchbox toys were manufactured, is tied to the realities of worker redundancies. A hapless, pathetic outsider reacts to his unkind treatment at the hands of a small-minded world by transforming himself into a man/bear hybrid and running for refuge to the marshes: the same marshes where a Victorian waterworks engineer and his nemesis, an otherworldly Decadent and flaneur, find themselves pulled out of their time and wander bewilderedly among urban youth with puffa jackets and mp3 players and are terrified by pylons, interpreting these appalling phenomena through the only frames of reference they have. Local myths and local history blur into one, the semi-militarised Olympic Park ironically mocks the old grass-roots struggles over land ownership, public art is subverted by its shadow the graffiti tag, and the animal and the human become the supernatural.
Time and space collapse and intermingle, mutating into an interzone where the post-apocalyptic near-future dystopia disintegrates into the Stone Age, where the Blitz and contemporary gentrification simultaneously create their respective kinds of damage, where the documented history of the local people is focalised through the tropes of Magical Realism, Urban Fantasy, the New Weird and the disorientation of psychedelicised perspectives. The merry misrule of the carnivalesque and the heart of reality’s darkness dance an eternal dialectical tango.
Rees creates his personal marshland out of his own life-story, turning tale into history and history into tale, bringing together the domestic and the civic, in a convincing microcosm of late-capitalist Britain.
But I wasn’t the observer. I’d become one of those people you see doing inexplicable things when you come to the marshes. I’d been exploring the place only a matter of months, and already I had been assimilated into the weirdness. For this reason – being dragged back over the ledge with Hendrix, soaking wet – I saw it as a kind of baptism.
Led every time by his wayward hound into the Mysterium, he drifts through his psychic and actual landscape in response to the messages of his personal vision, becoming part of the story, lighting out for the territory as restructured in his imagination. This parallel realm seems at once real and unreal, one which maps onto real space and warps it into transcendent placetime. This marshland is Rees’s Otherland, my Otherland and your Otherland, re-imagined for you and me.
Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London is published by Influx Press: http://influxpress.com
Gareth E. Rees blogs at www.UnofficialBritain.com