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Susan’s Bookshelves: Unofficial Britain by Gareth E Rees

One of my self-imposed Susan’s Bookshelves briefs is to keep it as eclectic as possible. So if something a bit quirky comes my way, I’m delighted. And this book is certainly original. Gareth E Rees makes a fascinating quasi-touristic exploration of functional things we normally write off, or don’t notice: road junctions, car parks, motorways, retail parks, hospitals and the M6, among other things.

I’ve driven through Gravelly Hill (“Spaghetti Junction”) many times but have never thought about what might lie at the bottom of it – possibly because I’m concentrating on being in the right lane for the bit of the intersection I need. Rees has been down there to explore and likens it to a mythical underworld. The detritus, the canal, the homeless people and the dog walkers create a sort of alternative world to the pounding noise of the cars above.

One of his main arguments is that history is ongoing. Any site we look at now has had different usage in the past so it’s a  historical interweaving when, for instance, a retail park is built on the site of a factory which replaced another factory on the site of an old monastery. No wonder so many of these places have strong ghost traditions attached to them and Rees is good at ferreting out these stories and evoking  creepy uncertainty. “The past” he observes, “is never absolutely destroyed but recycled into mutant strains. It seeps into the atmosphere of a place and takes on new guises to give us goose-bumps and chills.”

For myself I’m a bit chary of almost empty multi-storey car parks at night when I’ve been to a show and mine is the only car in sight. I just hope there won’t be a mugger lurking behind a pillar. Rees regards them as concrete castles full of mystery, ghosts or sometimes squatters. The atmosphere is distinctive. It isn’t surprising, he says, that they so often form the backdrop for violence in crime drama. Sometimes, though, they can be repurposed when no longer needed. He mentions, for instance the one in Peckham which has been developed into a performing arts space.

Or what about hospitals? We associate them with birth, death and illness and only experience them when we, or someone close to us, needs hospital services. How does a hospital look and feel if you go there and look at it objectively without any emotional baggage? That’s what Gareth does and manages to avoid being accosted for unauthorised corridor wandering.

It’s a warmly reflective book which has certainly made me think afresh about the harsher aspects of our built environment. And his prose is to die for. Take this definition: “A motorway is a channel of repressed rage, jealousy and social politics, expressed in a ballet of metal machines moving at lethal speeds.”

Dating from 2020, Unofficial Britain whose title continues ”journeys through unexplored places” is effectively a travel book. Rees has been all over the UK with his notebook and it’s a treat to read something so unlike anything else. I shall see those service stations on the M6 very differently now.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Wifedom by Anna Funder

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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