Unofficial Britain: Journeys Through Unexpected Places by Gareth E. Rees

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Opening notably and powerfully with a description of travelling through a traditional countryside location, innocent dry stone walls at first, then Civil War memories, a burning wood, a crow … stories of ghosts, May Day streamers fluttering – “Merrie Olde England”, the hypothesis of the book is made clear early: although we now live an urban life, with central heating and mass production, this is far from indicating that we don’t have similar stories and myths building up around modern phenomena:

… to proclaim that there is no longer any myth, mystery or beauty in our culture diminishes our everyday lived experience and underestimates the creative capacity of our minds. Our brains have essentially remained unchanged since the Stone Age. We have the same instinct to seek patterns in the chaos. We still tell stories to help us process the world. We still have an emotional attachment to places and objects.

The remainder of the book sets out to prove this, with chapters on pylons, ring roads and roundabouts, power stations, flyovers and underpasses and hospitals among others, taking liminal places and the traditions that have built up around them, checking out stories and visiting some alarming places as he goes. The point is made that if Victorian railway bridges and 20th century gasometers can attract fans and legends and be seen as atmospheric, why not service stations and modern estates? It’s the quotidian that interests him, and the landscapes of the ‘haunted generation’ – people who grew up in the 1970s and early 80s and were subjected to Dr Who, scary sci fi films and gruesome public information films.

One of the themes throughout the book is the link between older traditions, myths and stories, and modern ones, whether that’s community memories of housing estates being built on graveyards, the placing of real or ersatz standing stones within motorway junctions, links between scary wolf figures of previous centuries and those which pop up today, the “thin places” of Celtic myth and the liminal places of the modern day where you could slip into … anything, or the arrangements of motorway junctions and their reflection of the layout of ancient sacred sites. Rees does really good work on this and it’s fascinating. He also does a good job of weaving his own memories in with the ones he tracks down and researches here without making the book tediously all about himself; this is most notable in his return to the M6 motorway in the final chapter, which also manages to pull together all the themes of the book:

My journey up the M6 had taken me from the factories and trading estates of the industrial Midlands, through futuristic motor ports and former rave-scene haunts to these standing stones in a motorway service station in the Cumbrian fells without leaving the same strip of tarmac. Almost all of the features I’ve written about in this book were visible on the route, jumbled across myriad different topographies, but the motorway had arranged them into a neat, linear narrative, in the same way that we try to order the chaos of existence into a coherent story.

Although Rees claims not to be as interested in the nature of his favoured places as he is in the human stories, he has a way with description and weaves in the natural world alongside pylons, rusting buildings and concretescapes. While I will admit to a local interest here, his portrayal of the quiet world of anglers, art and runners under Spaghetti Junction is lovely. He can arouse a sombre and alarming atmosphere as we creep through fences looking for places and people, and takes you through his thought processes as he explores in an Iain Sinclair-like way. He’s also very good on the way memories of the places he discusses can evoke complex emotions about friends and places visited, even if they seem so everyday and prosaic.

The epilogue was interesting, first of all drawing together his thoughts:

everything chances and yet little does. Landscapes overlay landscapes, in ever-turning cycles … After each new manifestation replaces the old, it too becomes worn, decayed and saturated with nostalgia, to the point where some mourn its passing as much as others once lamented its coming. So the circle turns.

But then, in a fascinating ending, Rees ponders the turn of events brought about by the global pandemic – the first time I’ve encountered it written about in a book I’ve read, and fair play to him for fitting it in in such a natural way. Of course in the same way as in the rest of the book, certain things assume huge importance and rumours and myths spread, and as he says, “onto the uncertain world of tomorrow, the tale of these isles will continue until the final storyteller’s dying breath”.

A fascinating and sometimes unnerving book (I am of a somewhat nervous disposition and had to read it in daylight hours!); I liked best the human stories (especially the brief celebrations of notable CB radio shops, public toilet managers and eccentrics on roundabouts), the odd phenomena and their prosaic origins and the nature descriptions. However, his careful thinking about “paranormal” phenomena means that those never feel placed in the book to be sensationalist, but instead to illustrate the layers of history and emotions that fill all places, however modern-seeming.

Gareth Rees has a website, Unofficial Britain, where you can find out more about some of the places he features, and he includes input from some of the people who contribute to it in the book. We find a comprehensive bibliography, notes and index, which I of course appreciated.

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Liz Dexter is a member of the ‘haunted generation’ and certainly recalls those terrifying public information films. She is fascinated by Spaghetti Junction, especially travelling over it on a bus (wheeee!). She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Gareth E. Rees, Unofficial Britain: Journeys Through Unexpected Places (Elliott & Thompson, 2020). 978-1783965144, 268 pp., ill. hardback.

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Comments

  1. What an interesting idea! I’m not immediately convinced that we do have the same sort of mythology around places that people used to, but I’m also not very aware of urban legends and I’m certainly willing to be convinced. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

  2. This sounds interesting. I’m a sucker for every new nature and everyday-cultural-heritage book that comes along, but this more contemporary twist seems fascinating.

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