Gareth E. Rees is founder of the Unofficial Britain website and author of three books, Marshland (2013), The Stone Tide (2018) and Car Park Life (2019). His most recently published book is Unofficial Britain, a remarkably vivid exploration of a Britain that exists beyond the conventional and the prescribed. This is a book which peels by the layers of cultural conformity to reveal the previously hidden magic and strangeness of industrial estates, factories and pylons, motorways, ring roads and flyovers, hospitals and houses and housing estates. Noticing the strong connection to psychogeographic current which pulses through the veins of many members of the Folk Horror Revival, John Pilgrim took the opportunity to make some ‘routine enquiries’.
FHR: How have the towns and cities which you have spent time in shaped your identity and psychology – at the time and in the subsequent chapters of your life? Does the residue of place, especially the unofficial locations which you document live on in us?”
I’m half Welsh, half Scottish, with an English accent, and experience of living in Scotland, Wales, Northern England, London and the South Coast. Also I was born outside the UK. So I’ve been gifted with freedom from regional patriotism or prejudice. It means that in a book like this, I’ve been able to connect my own memories and experiences to many of its varied national locations.
The main thread of influence, particularly in my childhood, was that I lived in a threshold between countryside and city. Firstly, Kirkintilloch, just outside Glasgow, on the Forth and Clyde Canal. Then we moved to Glossop which is just east of Manchester, nestled in a landscape of old mills and factories beside the Peak District National Park.
The landscape of my youth was characterised by a mixture of industrial and rural, on the edge of things. When I eventually moved to Clapton in Hackney in my 30s, I began to walk the Lea Valley, London’s former East End industrial heartland, now a nature reserve. That was where my landscape writing began – the process which lead to Unofficial Britain.
In my first book, Marshland, I put my fascination with the marshes down to its evocation of my childhood landscapes. I believe that those early saturations of place stay with us for life – and they are valid and important no matter what that childhood environment was, be it deep rural countryside, suburban town, or urban council estate. Unofficial Britain is about looking at everyday places in which we live and acknowledging their place in our personal and collective memories.
FHR: In part, your book seems to be a challenge to the basis upon which traditional norms legitimise our experiences of the poetic and profound – is this right?
If you remove subjective notions of ‘ugliness’ and ‘beauty’, along with concepts like ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ and instead consider every object as having within it all the ingredients of the universe – then a huge world of possibilities open up, where a breeze block can be as interesting or meaningful as a rock, or where the undulations of the tarmac in a car park can be as fascinating as ripples on a pond.
FHR: Following on from this, you have said elsewhere that ‘everywhere is magical – everywhere is valid’. Pushing the logic of this a bit further it seems that this is both a personal invitation for a change in perceptions but also one which has cultural and political implications?
Yes, because it defuses this idea of an authentic pure ‘nature’ that must be revered (even though in a British landscape almost entirely reshaped by human activity since the Neolithic, it doesn’t really exist) while the places we all live are somehow sullied and unworthy. It also goes against this conservative, and often racist, idea that magic, folklore and myth belong in the rural past and to ‘proper’ British people (who also don’t really exist), because now we can see how imagination, storytelling and wonder continue in our contemporary world of industry, retail, housing estates and motorways.
FHR: Your book offers the prospect of an ‘urban reimagining’ – a chance to identify and connect to previously hidden aspects of our city environment. One example which I particularly liked was the role of roundabouts and your meeting with Stuart Silver in Glasgow and his call for urban paganism. Are roundabouts a good starting point in this respect? What are the roundabouts which you have known and loved?
Roundabouts are local lodestones in urban areas. They attract traffic from all angles then repel them in different directions. This gives them an undeniable power and influence. It is common for them to contain horticulture, sculpture, local advertising and other forms of local identity. So, roundabouts often have more to them than people think. Quite often they are situated on sites of importance – ancient crossroads, the sites of churches and prehistoric dwellings.
In the book I write about ‘the Urban Prehistorian’, Kenneth Brophy, who sees roundabouts as a legitimate fieldwork target for archaeologists. He gives the example of the Greenyards Roundabout near Bannockburn in Stirling, the construction of which in 2010 exposed post holes, Bronze Age roundhouses and evidence of agricultural activity. Sites like this offer an opportunity to peer through portals into the past. But it’s not only about looking back. Kenny believes that the roundabout has its own inherent value as ‘the latest aspect of the biography of this location’.
For an eye-opening roundabout tour, I recommend people visit Cribb’s Causeway Retail Park, just north of Bristol. It first appeared in my previous book, Car Park Life, but I make a return to it in Unofficial Britain. There are a series of roundabouts within the retail complex that have mysterious shapes and uncertain meanings – possibly relating to erogenous zones. I’ll leave it for people to get my book to find out more.
FHR: One chapter in your book draws out the terror and the anonymity of the hospital experience. Was it a therapeutic for you writing this chapter? And how might we encounter hospitals differently?
When I originally conceived of the hospital chapter, I was thinking primarily about the weirdness of the external areas – the seemingly chaotic jumble of disparate buildings, modern improvisations bolted onto the old, and the sometimes terrifying glimpses of the visceral reality – biomass chimneys burning tissue and bloody rags, tossed-away kidney dishes and signs for ‘blood letting units’. Beyond the grand facades of sliding doors and the smooth white interiors, there is a horror of sorts, in walking the back stage area. That stuff is in that chapter.
But then I bean to think about all the drama, horror, tragedy and joy that occurs within the hospital itself, which is rarely allowed to imprint itself on the disinfected and polished walls, floors and furnishings, yet which exists in the memory of those who experienced it. In moments of crisis, the hospital becomes the theatre set for the biggest dramas in our life – from birth to death – where we notice all the microdetails, the smells, textures and sounds. Then it’s all cleaned and packed away, leaving only this memory – which over time becomes a kind of fiction as we edit and shape that memory. In this way, a hospital interior is largely a psychological entity. Then when you think of the sheer volume of stories that happen in that space, it becomes an anthology of narrative that cannot be seen, but which does exist in the collective consciousness.
I don’t know if it will change the way we encounter hospitals, only that we maybe reconsider how weird they are – this non-place that is also fundamental to our family stories of birth, death, suffering and redemption
FHR: I saw that you were recently on television talking about your love of carparks. How might you persuade sceptics to re-evaluate the appeal of car parks? I personally find multi-story carparks to be quite sinister – is this your experience?
The appeal of car parks, for me, is that they are spaces in full public view, which many of us use daily or weekly, which are also unexplored as place in themselves. Why can’t a car park be as interesting as a wood? People use them to park cars and shop, but when you walk around them, poking into the corners, searching for clues, they reveal strange energies, weird juxtapositions and hidden stories. Google ‘car park + violence’ and you’ll see tales of horror, depravities, and a society with its wheels falling off. The heart of darkness might not be at the end of a river through the jungle, but in the space outside Tesco.
Car Park Life was specifically about chain retail store car parks, but in Unofficial Britain I explore the multi-storey, which are like crumbling Norman castles – one in almost every town and city. People find them beautiful but also sinister – in the book I talk about ghost sightings and experiences, as well as the creepiness of the decay inside these unique spaces.
FHR: In the book you share accounts of hauntings, often in quite mundane settings such as council houses. What is your own view of such things and how do they shape your philosophy of how we might broaden our experience of Unofficial Britain?
I wanted to get across the idea that the supernatural can seep into, and out of, every structure no matter how modern or seemingly mundane. Folklore and myth are not fixed in a halcyon past, but ongoing. They are carried in our hearts and minds, and therefore any place can be haunted – a 60s council house, a multi-storey car park, an industrial estate. We have lived for over 70 years in an urban landscape of council estates, shopping centres, motorways, pylons and cooling towers. They’ve 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 as they burst from the concrete, seeking the light.
FHR: Can you say a little more about your literary influences. Clearly Richard Mabey’s Unofficial Countryside provides an important touchstone for challenging what is considered to be of significance in our landscape. Are writers such as JG Ballard and Iain Sinclair important to you? What are the pros and cons of being influenced by other writers?
Neither of those writers are particularly important to me, although Ballard inevitably crops up in the chapter about motorway flyovers. I am mainly influenced by other people who I’ve connected to online, who are ploughing similar – or complementary – furrows. I made a conscious decision to hat tip all the influences in the book itself, so you’ll see mention of websites like Scarfolk, Hookland and Anatomy of Norbiton, artists like Maxum Griffin, Jane Samuels and Mark Hollis, writers like Salena Godden, Nick Papadimitriou and Gary Budden, academic practitioners like Phil Smith, record labels like Ghost Box and musicians like Mark Williamson. The bibliography even includes Folk Horror Revival. These are the sorts of influences I have, and I can’t see any downsides to that – they are a source of ideas and inspiration. What I produce is something very different to these projects, so I am not burdened by the pressure of trying to compete directly.
FHR: Why is it that there seems to be a growing appreciation of pylons across the country? You document your own experiences vividly in the book but there are others who are connecting to this current – Hookland for example and the cult of The Children of the Hum.
One of the themes of the book is the way that landscape features become engrained in both our personal memories and the public folk consciousness. This can happen with industrial structures in the same way as natural topographical features. For everyone alive right now, pretty much, pylons have always been there. They’re huge, imposing structures that transcend town and city. On top of that, they’re highly sculptural, with phallic and feminine qualities. Depending on their location they can be menacing, majestic, serene or terrifying. Beneath the surface there’s a lot going on with pylons, as I reveal in the opening chapter which includes Illuminati conspiracies, Egyptology and alien invaders.
FHR: You are a musician. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on how music and sound can change our experience of everyday environments. What artists do you admire – for example do you have any affinity with Brian Eno, ambient music or the Ghostbox project?
In my first book, Marshland, I used what I call ‘soundchronicities’, which are walks where you also listen to music at a volume that doesn’t drown out the external noise, creating a unique DJ mix, never to be repeated. I used a lot of ambient and experimental electronic music for that, including Eno, but also Ekoplekz, TVO, The Psychogeographical Commission and Jon Brooks. This technique allows you to open up new interpretations of a place, influenced by the mood of what you’re listening to.
In Unofficial Britain, I didn’t use music in that way, but I do write about some of the ways that pylons, underpasses, power stations, motorways and other modern structures have been expressed in music, poetry and film. So I write a little bit about Ghost Box Records, and touch on other genres too – for instance, the M6 feature in multiple tracks by Half Man Half Biscuit, while the building of the M1 was subject of a radio folk ballad by Ewan MacColl.
FHR: Finally, what three unofficial places in Britain would you recommend visiting?
That’s a hard one to answer. The main point of the book was to avoid obviously extreme or interesting locations and show that there is fascination in the everyday. We all live in places that are full of magic, weirdness and stories, if we can just dwell in them a while, look closely, and allow our imaginations to roam. So really I wouldn’t recommend visiting three specific places in the map – but instead visit three types of place near you and see what happens. I’d recommend: an underpass (ideally beneath a roundabout); an industrial estate; and a multi-storey car park. Go there, wander, poke about, and get the feel of the place. See what happens. You never know.