Just over a week ago, I dropped in on an old friend who lives just outside Chichester. My pal is a big reader - has worked in publishing for ages; used to work in bookshops; used to send me bundles of books to keep me supplied with fresh reading material when living in my pre-Internet Poland of the early-to-mid nineteen nineties.
We only had about an hour to chat and to look around the new house he's just moved into with his wife and two wonderfully polite daughters, all of whom were at home when we stopped by. So there was little time for one of our proper catch-ups. But I could tell he'd read something new and had it on his mind. I noticed that he kept returning, a little obliquely, to the concept of unloved, unlovely places at the edge of town and country. Every now and then, with just a few words, he would capture quite evocatively the essence of these ignored strips and patches of land. More than once he used the term edgelands. Something about how he emphasised this word suggested that it was one around which he'd lately and repeatedly been wrapping his mouth and mind. But for whatever reason, I didn't pick up on this possible cue to ask more about this apparent neologism, edgelands. I guessed, however, that he and I would return to this theme some time soon.
So it came to pass. Two days later, my friend asked me if I knew of a book titled Edgelands. I replied that I did not. Shortly after that, I was surprised to receive said book by post, courtesy of my thoughtful pal. Replying to my words of thanks, he advised me that he'd "found it to be a mixture of fascinating, amusing, concerning and slightly irritating but a good read nonetheless." I am part of the way through it and I am minded to agree with my friend's words. I do feel that the book contains much to admire while being, at the same time, frustratingly unsatisfying in places.
Much of the photography and, I think, a little of the writing, here at this is my england (and the associated Instagram account) is evidence of my interest in the kind of spaces and atmospheres explored by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (both are poets) in Edgelands. In fact I'd really like to find my own ways to capture the essence of these untidy places in my own short stories and attempts at poetry. Effective ways, I mean. Ways that properly please me if no one else.
Overall, then, it feels like I keep nodding with approval as the two poets put into words a half-formed notion that I've never properly articulated myself. But then, rather more often than I'd like, I feel that the Edgelands authors miss the mark, even if only by a fraction. It's like this book reminds me of an itch... and then fails to scratch it. So at some point, I may feel inclined to say more about Edgelands. But for now I just want to express my dissatisfaction with one particular term coined by the authors.
Consider the photograph below. It shows part of the route I must take if, as now, I find myself travelling, daily, in and out of London in pursuit of a living. Here, I am drawing close to the station near my home:
Notice what has happened to the landscaping crafted around the mid-sized office building which sits close to our local station. In step with other commuters, I cross a busy road and then a bridge, before approaching the corner you see here. Some nameless town planner, you will observe, wanted us to stick to the footpath, our progress describing a gentle curve as we turn our steps into the station's approach road. But see that dry, grassless groove, a sharper angle worn across the well-trimmed grass maintained by some contractor serving the owners of the office complex. On rainless days, numberless pedestrians have shaved three seconds or so from the daily commute by cutting out the prescribed curve, flattening and then killing the grass as they go. For me, it's a decision. I realise now, in fact, that many, many times I have allotted some small portion of my attention to the question of whether to contribute to this process of erosion by angling across the corner of the lawn. Or whether to curve around the outside of the lamppost like a good boy. Does it depend on the weather? On the newness of my shoes? On whether I'm unobserved? On whether others around me are widening and deepening that illicit groove, or sweeping dryly and correctly along the footpath?
These countless tiny decisions and a surprisingly clear picture of the corner shown above both sprang immediately to mind when reading the following passage from Edgelands:
The post-war overspill developments seen on the edges of many of our cities were planned right down to every concrete walkway, subway and pathway. But their green squares and verges were soon criss-crossed with desire paths: a record of collective short-cuttings. In the winter, they turned to sludgy scars that spattered trousers and skirts and clung to shoes, and during hot summers they turned dusty and parched. Once established, they fell into constant use, footpaths which have never entered the literature. These footpaths of least resistance offer their own subtle resistance to the dead hand of the planner.
I enjoyed almost every word of this. Almost. But "desire paths"? No, no. This term really doesn't cut it for me. On one hand the Edgelands writers very deftly bring into "the literature" an instantly recognisable feature of urban and suburban environments which has escaped the descriptive remit of other texts. But on the other hand, once conjured into something tangible, this quotidian phenomenon is mislabelled with a term that seems altogether too attractive. Sylvan, even, speaking to me of improbably nubile faeries leaving traces of their passing across the glistening caps of dewy toadstools. This is about real people cutting across real patches of grass, using the spaces they live in (or travel through) not quite as the planners hoped. Nothing more. No faerie dust. No longing. No lust. So wherefore desire?
So I am looking for a more suitable alternative term for desire paths while being mindful that it may be difficult to create a sufficiently elegant one. But maybe such a term exists in German? Or, if not, perhaps a native speaker of German would find it easier to create one than would a Brit or an American. After all, just over a month ago, this is my england noted that "the German language outperforms English in one important area - a facility for the creation of abstract nouns which neatly (i.e. with one word, albeit sometimes a rather long one) convey quite complex and highly specific concepts or emotional states." This observation was followed up with a rambling attempt to convey certain frustrating emotions experienced (by me, anyway) at pelican crossings and an appeal for passing German speakers to encapsulate these with spiffy new nouns. I asked, then, "What Would Be a German Word for That?"
So, dear German reader (or, more realistically, M.P. Powers) - these desire paths of Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts: What Would Be a (Better!) German Word for That? Yeah, this is #WWBAGWFT2.