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Unofficial Britain

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Gareth Rees’s Unofficial Britain: Journeys Through Unexpected Places certainly lives up to its title. Despite having lived in the U.K. for a number of years, and the thousands of miles I’ve driven there, Rees took me to some places I never even got close to exploring (not that I would have likely explored them even if I’d known about them), some truly “unexpected places.”  

Picture if you would a study of the country’s electric pylon networks, its ring roads and roundabouts, its abandoned housing and industrial estates, its underpasses and flyovers, its “concrete castles” (otherwise known as multi-story parking garages), and its abandoned hospitals. My personal favorite chapter in the book is its last, one titled “An Emotional Life of the M6,” in which Rees details his still very strong attachment to that particular motorway. This is the chapter that readers will most easily identify with, especially if they have their own memories tucked away of some long highway or interstate they once traveled regularly with their parents.  

Gareth Rees visited multiple cities and towns in England, Scotland, and Wales in search of weird stories “about the lore of everyday urban life.” He traveled to major cities like Manchester, London, and Birmingham as well as to lesser known towns and villages such as Harlow, Grimsby, Greenock and Kirkintilloch. You might think that he was only looking for “haunted” spots in each location he stopped to explore. After all, how easy must it be to convince yourself that an abandoned hospital – complete with beds and other left behind equipment – or a long abandoned factory that looks like everyone just decided never to return one after work one day, is haunted? It would be particularly easy to do so at dusk, exactly the time of day Rees most often visited such places. 

But Unofficial Britain is not a book about ghost hunters or one written for them. Rees has a much deeper observation than that to share with his readers. Rees reaches the conclusion that even though everything about a place changes over the years, very little that matters actually changes. He maintains that a certain place tone and spirit is maintained forever despite what is overlaid on any place through the centuries – that each use of a place leaves something behind forever in an “ever-turning cycle.” He uses examples such as these:

	“The flyover where a viaduct once stood. The Victorian workhouse that became a hospital. The steelworks on the site of a monastery. The burial cairn surrounded by a busy interchange. Motorway earthworks that rise alongside their Stone Age predecessors.”

All places that Rees visits in Unofficial Britain” – all places where he feels the pull of the past so strongly that it gives him goose-bumps.
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I really enjoyed this book! 
Unofficial Britain is the website set up in 2014 by the author Gareth E Rees to chronicle experiences of the strange, out of kilter things that the contributors find in the urban landscape.  Now e have the book which is both an introduction and guide to what can lie beneath the seemingly mundane cities in which we live. It covers aspects of Urban Wyrd, an offshoot of Folk Horror, and  how city dwellers create their own myths and legends and that some have crept in from the countryside.
 I find these types of book intriguing. After reading Orbital by Iain Sinclair, an account of his year long walk around the M25, I never felt the same way about that motorway again.  Instead of being the UK’s biggest car park it became instead a gateway to interesting ideas and places to go. Unofficial Britain has had the same effect on me as I now want to go out and explore these places armed with insider knowledge.
The author begins by reminding the reader that our society is a constant state of flux. Each new wave of immigrants brings their own traditions and stories with them and they became absorbed into the collective unconsciousness.  New buildings replace old ones but the traditions continue albeit with a shiny new concrete coat. The author mentions a local landmark, an industrial chimney in his home town, that was demolished.  As he says ‘they are beloved landmarks that anchor us to a place.’ Once they’re gone do we feel that we’ve lost part of our memories?  
I was surprised that people can become nostalgic about electricity pylons, those behemoths of power that bestride the countryside, resembling the totems to the Egyptian sun god Ra.
The book contains 9 chapters, an introduction, footnotes and a useful bibliography at the end.  The chapters cover hospitals, ring roads, motorways, roundabouts and housing estates amongst others. These are all part of the urban landscape which we may regard as useful rather than inherently worth investigating. But did you know that roundabouts are often built over crossroads which have  a dark history themselves as suicides were often buried under them.  The author also considers that roundabouts and ring roads may be energy circles which makes a sort of sense. Underpasses as holloways – that was an intriguing thought.  
The author has read Richard Mabey’s book, Unofficial Nature, with its view that nature isn’t just in scenic places but everywhere.  I’ve often found amazing flowers and wildlife in the edgelands of cities and towns. The Haunted Generation also gets a mention. This is concerned with ‘70’s and 80’s children‘s TV and public information films of the era as well as the fictional places of Scarfolk and Hookland. These have provided much fruitful inspiration.
Multi-storey car parks are now a staple of cop and horror films and TV programmes. Dark, deserted, badly lit, heels clicking over concrete as a car suddenly revs or a hand comes over your mouth……the equivalent of walking down an empty dark street at night alone…Rees tells a few disturbing stories about some of them. .   Mr Rees also claims that multi-storey car parks are ‘as weathered as castles’ and will they be abandoned due to COVID-19 as shoppers go online?

As he explores deeper into the other side of modern Britain he hears of a hermit in Northampton who lived on the central reservation of a motorway. He was supplied with food and other necessities by local Hindus who regarded him as a holy man.  There’s also the Glasgow transport system that runs anti-clockwise or ‘widdershins’. This is generally considered to be the wrong way to go round something as it’s unlucky to walk widdershins around a church. Was the Glasgow system intentional or happenstance? And what of the roundabouts that have standing stones at their centre? Is it to keep the energy in or keep us out from disturbing it?
A Grimsby housing estate, the Nunsthorpe, spawned The Grimsby Ghostbusters! They’re still going strong and have investigated several cases.  A crack house in a derelict house revealed a 1970’s time capsule above the crack den below.  Furniture, family photos; all left behind by the inhabitants as if they’d left part of themselves behind. ‘A building can feel very eerie once its original purpose has gone.’ as Rees says,
The urban environment abounds with as many legends and myths as any ancient town. Motorway infrastructure is supposedly crammed with the bodies of either unlucky motorway workers or gangland victims. After all, who’s going to find them once they’ve vanished into the concrete?
He visits several motorway service stations. Once seen as glamorous and futuristic and designed to look like that they are now mundane, the vision now faded, and now indistinguishable from each other. It’s not an occasion to visit it any longer.  There are haunted stretches of motorway as well with Stocksbridge on the M6 – were the manifestations brought to ’life’ (excuse the pun) by the coming of the motorway?
The author mixes elements of his own story, his memories, journeys and friends with his own research. COVID-19 makes an appearance and its possible effects on city life is discussed.
A book full of interesting ideas well told.
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First, this is not a travel book in any traditionally known way, and it should not be read with the intention of discovering a new side of Britain that tourists do not see. Rather, this is a history book on urbanism, infrastructure, architecture, and industry, with a twist of memoir thrown in for good measure and it’s parallels to the way people view these everyday objects; he argues that like the castles of long ago, these roundabouts, hospitals, multi-story buildings, etc. are all bases of history in their own right.  One could successfully argue that this book would be a basis of study in a sociology course. 
The writing is dull and long-winded. What could take a few sentences becomes a page and a half of examples, one being in Chapter 1 with the rambling of various 1970s television shows and electricity.  It reads like a textbook and thesis paper in the first person perspective.  While chapters may have begun with the optimism of being interesting, the wordy way of the author led you down a rabbit hole where you found yourself wondering, “What is your point?” That’s about the moment where his writing returns to a memory of some point in his life where these “modern” buildings, roads, etc. and he tries to connect the dots through more meanderings, now dubbed research with some quotes from other books thrown in as well.  Lest not forget the plugs for the author’s other books he’s penned in his roundabout way of bringing together a chapter.  Perhaps the one bit of amusement, are the ballads signaling the close of another chapter.  
The premise is fine: what we see as ordinary, functional buildings and infrastructure are what future generations may visit as historical icons, or they may be simply be torn down and forgotten. The author, however, fails to engage and instead drags on with tedious commentary.
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Inspired by and partly based on the eponymous website of which Rees is the founder and curator, this book is a travelogue of sorts, except that it celebrates those aspects of the British landscape that are often overlooked on the assumption that they are ugly, uninteresting and nondescript – electricity pylons, motorways and flyovers, hospitals, industrial estates and retail car parks (already the subject of an earlier book by Rees – Car Park Life).

The philosophy behind this approach is easy to explain. Landscape does not have any objective meaning. It acquires its connotations only insofar as it acts as a backdrop to the communities living in it. It is a blank slate onto which we project our memories and experiences, our individual and collective joy, love, loss, grief. Once we grasp this, we should no longer be surprised that people can be as emotionally attached to a flyover as to a breath-taking mountain. Or that ghosts and legends should inhabit twentieth century housing estates as much as they plagued medieval castles and Victorian mansions in earlier times. Accordingly, the book takes us on a strange journey along miles of tarmac, with stops at abandoned factories, ghostly carparks and industrial wastelands haunted by mythical men-beasts.

Rees writes in an engaging style, effortlessly combining urban folklore and personal memoir, history and psychogeography, road-trip narrative and gonzo journalism. In this regard, I spotted parallels with two other books I read and enjoyed recently, both of which provide an idiosyncratic view of the landscape of the British Isles: Richard King’s The Lark Ascending, an exploration of 20th Century British (mainly English) music and its connection to landscape, and Edward Parnell’s Ghostland, a memoir presented through the prism of the biographies of British ghost story writers and the places that influenced them.

Unofficial Britain is, in my view, the strangest of the three books and, at times, the scariest. Rees is a writer of weird fiction and folk horror who has contributed to anthologies such as Unsung Stories’ brilliant This Dreaming Isle. Although this book is a work of non-fiction, it shares the same themes and concerns as the author’s fiction: a predilection for the weird and the strange, the magic – sometimes dark, sometimes benign – which haunts the everyday, the realm of the Natural snaking its way into the urban landscape. Reese also shares with other writers of the same ilk (such as Gary Budden) a sense of Deep Time:

"What I learned on this journey is that everything changes and yet little does. Landscapes overlay landscapes, in ever-turning cycles. The flyover where a viaduct once stood. The Victorian workhouse that became a hospital. The steelworks on the site of a monastery. The burial cairn surrounded by a busy interchange. Motorway earthworks that rise alongside their Stone Age predecessors. The pretty bend on the river that became a dirty dockland then a ramshackle trading estate then an artist’s hub then an estate of luxury waterside high-rises… The past is never absolutely destroyed by recycled into mutant strains. It seeps through the layers of a place and takes on new guises to give us goose-bumps and chills.

The passage above is typical of the best bits of the book where the author turns poet – literally so at the end of the chapters, each of which concludes with a sort of modern-day ballad. Rees is a bard singing the praises of a weird, urban Albion.
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Spun off from a site I'm dimly aware of but don't look at much, a celebration of and inquiry into the bits of the country from which we sometimes incline to turn away – the underpasses, multistorey car-parks and industrial estates. Sometimes it feels like a stretch – surely we already know that hospitals are places of destiny, and they're on TV at least as often as stately homes and village greens, even before this year made us yet more invested in the NHS as part of the national mythos (and the NHS yet more open to investment by bastards, whatever pretty lies we were told, but that's another story). Still, there's a certain eccentric appeal to the section where Rees just wanders a hospital without actually having a life-or-death reason to be there, as when he goes on a sort of motorway dérive. Parts of which do feel a little familiar if you're into this stuff – as also the chapter on council house poltergeists – but which is justified by the fragments of a new folklore for service stations which he constructs along the way. At its best, though, the book does serve as a reminder of those uncanny flashes we can sometimes feel but then forget, because they happened in places which don't really fit the supposed mood of spookiness, and for which I can certainly vouch: the only time I've ever seen a ghost was in the new-ish build garage of a suburban semi. Although elsewhere we are reminded of the question, how many people see a ghost without realising they're a ghost? And one figure I initially thought might be one when I saw him does make an appearance, a tramp of mystical aspect who's probably right behind Caitlin Moran as the most famous person from Wolverhampton. Odd details like this are the book's strongest suit: Glasgow's cursed underground; ring road hauntings; a replica stone circle on a roundabout where Rees feels more numinous charge than at the original a short distance away, simply because it's still part of the flow of people's lives. And I definitely go with his description of anyone who grew up on seventies and early eighties British TV as 'the haunted generation' – it feels a far better fit than Generation X. The epilogue, which unlike the unfettered wanderings of the book proper was written post-Event, notes how prescient its earlier references to Peter Dickinson's Changes books have become in an age of terrified idiots burning 5G masts, and sums the book's thesis up as a series of gradual hauntings: "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 others once lamented its coming. So the circle turns."
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To start with what this is not, this is not a gazetteer of peculiar places in Britain you might one day fancy looking at.  Neither is it a travel book, with the author digging up unusual roundabouts, touring power stations and moseying about unique housing estates.  It is instead a quite circuitous, often structure-free look round Britain, trying to pre-empt a time when what we live in and adjacent to now, and how we live today, becomes the legend and fairy tale of a future Britain.

Perhaps because I was expecting something along the lines of what I've said it was not, I didn't really take to the opening chapter on power cable pylons, despite a few flashes of interest in their history and the growth of their use in the 1920s and 1930s.  But clearer examples of the book's successes came quickly after – a look at roundabouts, and the idea that legends of the crossroads beneath them can just as easily be carried on long after we're gone; and our humdrum housing, and how if it gets haunted it's clearly little different to the token Victorian mansion.  An Enfield poltergeist and others have made it to Hollywood, so the idea there is no psychogeography to be had in the routine estate or tower block is clearly incorrect.  (And let's face it, what was the renaming of the road that contained 10 Rillington Place, or demolishing Fred and Rose West's home, if not an effort to immediately exorcise their demons?)

And if it's ghosts of the now getting ready for the future you want, what about the concatenation of stories to be found in a modern hospital?  What vestiges of our life can be left on, and currently seen from, a motorway?  All told it's not a bad book, but not great.  I sought a structured format of some design, which the final chapter ironically proves we could have had, and less instant jumping from someone's artwork or film to autobiography to social history and back again.  The writer can write, but also prefers to use five words where one would do.  Still, he comes across as most erudite, living his subjects and knowing each and every small press publication to have ever mentioned anywhere he finds himself.  There are considerations here that he surely nails, if you're his target audience – I found myself on the margins of that category a little too often, but even with this being less Fortean than I thought it would be, it was still reasonable company for a few hours.
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There's much to enjoy in Gareth Rees's tour of/guide to "urban legends, uncanny events, contemporary folklore, and cryptozoological beasts" in Britain. It takes in pylons, roundabouts, power stations, multistoreys, and the M6, some of which may be familiar from Rees's previous work and the amount of research he has put in is impressive. Occasionally it comes to close to the striving for significance that undermines the more prosaic attempts at psychogeography that become a little too common and which Will Wiles (referred to here) satirises in Plume.  Nevertheless, Rees has an eye for a good story and an intriguing detail (the first multi-storey was built, inevitably in London, in 1901, for example) and, although over-serious in tone, there's much to enjoy here even for those who unaccountably don't love pylons as much as Rees does.
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When people think of traveling to Great Britain, they think about seeing the Tower of London, Big Ben and all the other tourist icons, but as Rees explains, there are other, overlooked areas that truly represent Britain and her inhabitants. Places that seem insignificant at first glance, but that hold meaning to the many people who have lived, loved and died in their shadow. Having a father who was raised in London, I was told stories about some of the city’s most famous landmarks, but also about the fountain he was playing in when he heard that England was at war with Germany and the tree in Epping Forest he used to sit under when his parents argued. Those places are as real to me as they were to my father, and thanks to Rees, I now know of other lesser known areas in Britain that were just as important to other British people
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