21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Responding to the Chance of Space in Marshland

Raphael Kabo

 

Dedicated to Doreen Massey, with profound thanks for all she has given to the field of human geography.

 

Doreen Massey, writing in her visionary book, For Space, sets out a rallying cry for the building of interrelationships in the spaces of the contemporary world: ‘In this other spatiality, different temporalities and different voices must work out means of accommodation. The chance of space must be responded to’ (111). In her discussion of the ‘chance of space’, Massey envisions it as a palimpsestic interplay of chaos with order, resulting in the ‘constant formation of spatial configurations, those complex mixtures of pre-planned spatiality and happenstance positionings-in-relation-to-each other … the finding of yourself next door to alterity’ (116). In celebrating the importance of both chaos and order to the production of contemporary space, and thus rallying against spatial critiques which too often revel in the ‘glorious random mixity of it all’ without acknowledging that ‘what may look to you like randomness and chaos may be someone else’s order’ (111), Massey argues for an intrinsically relational and ever-polyvalent understanding of space. For Massey, ‘chance’ must acknowledge a multiplicity of meanings and methods to be a productive tool in relating to space.

One of the most beguiling responses to Massey’s paradigm in recent fiction is Gareth E. Rees’s Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London, published in 2013. The novel is the product of a number of years of research and writing, some of it having been published previously on Rees’ blog, The Marshman Chronicles, and consists of an interlinked series of short narratives in various formats and modes. Marshland promulgates multiple strands of spatial production, eventually bringing them together in a powerful celebration of the ‘chance of space’ – vital to this task are Rees’ own experiences and ambulations in the edgelands of Hackney Marsh, London – an area dominated since 2012 by the enormous structures of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Bringing to bear the literary taxonomy outlined in the previous article in this series, ‘Towards a Taxonomy of Edgelands Literature’, Marshland is exemplary as an edgelands text, combining generic flexibility, transgressive modes, and an authorial presence which does not overwrite the edgelands with its own narratives, but rather works as a relational counterpoint to the margin: both constructed from, and constructing evocations of, edgeland space.

 

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Gareth E. Rees' depiction of Hackney Marshes in Marshland helps us to consider "the chance of space" in its mixing of fiction with reality

[Image by Adam under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

 

The narratives of Marshland are written in modes ranging from the purely fictional to the purely realist, arranged together in such a way that it is impossible to discern where they begin to diverge from reality. The line between fact and fiction is further blurred by Rees’ use of inter- and intratextuality, with characters and events from different chapters, as well as other historical and fictional sources, appearing throughout the text; the author himself is fictionalised in his communications with these characters. In an article for The Quietus, Rees comments on this approach in constructing the work: “I could have created an unofficial guide, a history or a psychogeographical travelogue. But I felt that to express the marshes in the way it mattered to me, I needed to have all of these elements in the same book, sharing the same space, informing each other”.

The textual pieces are interspersed with illustrations from Ada Jusic, while one of the narratives is presented in the form of a graphic short story, also illustrated by Jusic (63-75); other sections of the text resemble concrete poetry (33, 238). The multimedia form is further developed in the final chapter, “A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes”. This section is a libretto for a musical suite composed by the band Jetsam, available online, with the text based on elements of Marshland and a short story of the same title published in the anthology Acquired for Development By….

The polyphonic approach of Marshland is addressed by Rees in an interview with 3:AM Magazine, where he traces the evolution of the book, from an early desire to “superimpose myself, turn it into a mystical place. A mythical land. The original idea was to map it, give it all my own names”, through to the realisation that this former approach was a “gentrification approach to psychogeography”, and that the Hackney Marshes were “a different place to different people. When I discovered the other people using the marshes for escape, or inspiration or secrets … that humbled me”.​ What Rees realises in the course of writing Marshland is that the edgelands demand, and flourish within, a polyphonic discourse between the possible and the impossible, the present and the past, and the human and the constructed.

 

Scanned Pages of Marshland

Multimedia form in Marshland: Rees experiments with various forms in the text, including graphic narrative and typography resembling concrete poetry (pp. 65, 238)

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

 

The edgelands of Marshland are not simply a space apprehended by multiple voices – they actively take on an active, agentive role within the book, challenging prior boundaries. If Marshland were to be located within a genre – apart from the genre of edgelands literature – it would be best placed in the emerging categorisation of New Weird, defined, in the words of Roger Luckhurst, by a “rapid hybridisation between horror, Gothic, science fiction and the relatively new label ‘dark fantasy’”, exemplified by authors such as China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer. The hybrid form of New Weird encourages dissolutions of other boundaries, prompting a recurring motif, within these works, of “passage through strange spatial zones, weird topologies that produce anomalies, destroy category and dissolve or reconstitute identities”. (22) Linking these zones of New Weird fiction to Foucault’s concept of heterotopias, Luckhurst writes:

The Zones of the post-genre fantastic … are chaotic and disordered as a means of evading the dangers of a static utopian topology, fenced off and guarded from transgressors. They do not elaborate a separate order, but work to set up interference patterns with the dominated or policed space that surrounds them. (27)

In the spirit of New Weird – some exemplary authors of which, such as Neil Gaiman, Miéville, and John M. Harrison, are cited in the bibliography of Marshland – Rees constructs not only a generically and stylistically fluid work, but sees the edgelands themselves as a “chaotic and disordered” zone, both temporally and spatially heterogeneous. On the marshes, where the “state loses its power” and “traditional communication lines are severed”, space, text and human lives meld together, which manifests itself “as an urge for the marshes’ users to write themselves onto the landscape … Instead of ‘Which of these things would you like?’ the marshland asks, ‘What would you like this place to be?’” (163). This writing of space is often evoked quite literally in the form of graffiti, created by “the invisible auteurs of the marshland” (110), who simultaneously write in the space, and write the space itself. “What all those who write on the marshland share is a desire not to remain a passive part of their surroundings” (114), writes Rees – the edgelands require an active, discursive engagement.

 

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Rees' reading of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park reminds us of the history of resistance to demarcation and encroachment on the marshes from the eighteenth century until the present day

[Image by Karen Bryan under a CC BY-ND license]

 

The agentive nature of the edgelands is developed further in Marshland through the recurring appearance of the Unmoored Manor of Mutating Manifestation, a transient city-state located on a narrowboat. The UMMM is a space of limitless possibility, where the only law is “that your own will is the law”; it travels through time, over water and land, collecting transgressors in the Hackney Marshes, such as the dead narrator’s widowed wife in “Life Between Epochs” and a man who is transformed into a bear in “Marsh Meat”. Within the UMMM, these disenfranchised characters attain sanctuary as well as self-determination, being encouraged to choose the narrowboat’s next destination. The UMMM is a fantastical portrayal of the politics which guide Marshland – an “independent municipality”, it is an evocation of the Hackney Marshes at their most politically agentive, demonstrating that even after they are bounded by the expansion of London, their water siphoned and canalised into reservoirs and treatment plants, they remain a resistant force, in the imagination if not in reality.

In the penultimate chapters of Marshland, Rees discusses the damage done to the marshes by the Olympic Park construction, drawing out the history of resistance to demarcation and encroachment on the marshes from the eighteenth century until the present day. Despite its active political engagement, the protest movement is a failure: “A hole was torn in the shield of common law, allowing corporate money into a public space which had been denied to vested interests for centuries” (245). Nevertheless, Rees paints a hopeful picture of the ongoing battle:

But this doesn’t mean that the idea of open, free, common land has been vanquished. Across the water, kestrels hover, butterflies dance and swans flock over cows, horses, and wildflower meadows. People walk dogs, chop logs, smoke joints, fly kites, kiss in the bushes, photograph wildflowers, pick berries and jog through the woodland.  In pubs across Clapton, Walthamstow, Leyton and Hackney Wick, marsh lovers plan their defence strategy … They are the latest defenders of the marshes, and they are not going anywhere. (245)

The edgelands are filled with the discourse of a resistant politics, which has existed since they were first threatened, and will, by nature of its grounding in a perpetually unordered space, continue indefinitely. In the next chapter, “Naja’s Ark”, set in a post-apocalyptic future version of the Hackney Marshes, a teenager finds a wall of edgeland graffiti recounting the marshes’ history: drawings of animals and humans interwoven with construction machinery, wartime bombs, and the UMMM. “There are words and numbers too: Lammas, Anonymous, Occupy, 1892, Whipple, Olympiad” (259). The multiple and resistant voices of the edgelands are perpetually alive in the textual space and spatial text of the Hackney Marshes – both in the protest movements of the present day, their historical predecessors, and the distant imagined future. 

 

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Marshland is an exemplary edgelands text, combining generic flexibility, transgressive modes, and an authorial presence which does not overwrite the edgelands with its own narratives

[Image by John Perivolaris under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

 

Throughout its spatially and temporally interwoven narratives, Marshland foregrounds a chaotic politics resistant to the systems of demarcation and mapping, embracing chaos as a tool of change, chance, and resistance. Read in this mode, Marshland is a postcolonial text, continually signalling its resistance to the spatial control of neo-Imperial London. In such works, according to Sara Upstone, “oppression seemingly becomes marvellously transformed into resistance, offering new radical perspectives, new sites of imagination and creativity, from which the colonial representation of territory can be excised and, perhaps, overcome” (13). At the apocalyptic end of “Naja’s Ark”, this resistance is realised fully – both by human actors and the agentive edgelands themselves – as the rivers of the world “connect with each other like re-awakening synapses until they form a single aquatic consciousness” (36), and watching the great flood, Naja says: “’All is becoming one … and when it does so, there will be no more edge, no inside, no outside, only heaven … or hell’” (268). The polyphony of the edgelands is still present even in the apocalyptic endgame, as Naja and her friend Bardu set sail across the new ocean, away from the “barricades … where all the rich folk lived … a steel wall with surveillance cameras and snipers” (227). Naja carries the powers of political resistance with her – community, polyphony, and means of transgression and mobility: “She has her raft. She has the last books in London. She has her trusted friend” (267). Slowly, hopefully, they row towards a distant horizon (268) – the eternal edge. Marshland is fully imbricated in this political project, which foregrounds “a concern for the very real violences and oppressions that exist within postcolonial contexts” even as its discourses tend to the imaginative, an “explicit political possibility situated in the real world” (17). Rees utilises the creative potentiality of the edgelands – in the freedom inherent in the UMMM, the agency of the River Lea, and the past and future visions of the Hackney Marsh which reveal the zone as a space of perpetual polyphony – to forge a fluid, adaptive, and politically engaged comprehension of marginal space.

In the epilogue of Marshland, Rees witnesses the fictional and the real flow together as he joins the ancient ritual of the Beating of the Bounds on the marshes. He sees characters from the book, while the crowd around him is “reminiscent of Ada’s illustrations for my story The Raving Dead” (272). Standing by the river, Rees has an epiphany:

I had undergone a metamorphosis. I was no longer a passive chronicler but an active node of marsh consciousness, carrying out its will. I had been assimilated. The landscape was dictating my behaviour, not the other way round. … How many others like me were writing about the marshes? How many more stories were there in this place? … All these marshland tales I had discovered and invented – the secret histories, local myths, and flights of imagination – they seemed like tiny drops of rain falling onto the surface of this prehistoric river which swelled with ancient memories, each water molecule a life lived. (272, 274-5)

Recognising that he is not the agent of his edgelands narrative, but that it is the edgelands themselves which speak – in their perpetual multitude of chaotic, weird, resistant and evocative voices – through the pages of Marshland, Rees responds fully to Massey’s “chance of space”. At the same time, he demonstrates how far the space of the edgelands has travelled in contemporary consciousness as a spatiality apprehended best by the heterogeneous, fantastical discourses of “chance”, and how much further it can travel still.

 

CITATION: Raphael Kabo, "Responding to the Chance of Space in Marshland," Alluvium, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2016): n. pag. Web. 31 March 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v5.1.01

 

Raphael Kabo is a postgraduate student, performance poet, and writer. He completed his undergraduate degree at the Australian National University and is about to embark on an MA in English Literature at King's College London with the support of a King's President's Scholarship. His work examines the relationships between contemporary subversive literature, spatiality, psychogeography, and urban existence, with a particular interest in the spatialities of contemporary protest literature from the UK and beyond.

 

Works Cited:
Luckhurst, Roger. “In the Zone: Topologies of Genre Weirdness,” in Gothic Science Fiction 1890-2010, edited by Sara Wasson and Emily Alder (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 2011), pp. 21-35.

Rees, Gareth E. “A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes,” in Acquired for Development By…, edited by Gary Budden and Kit Caless (London: Influx Press, 2012).

Rees, Gareth E. “Writing a Deep Map: Non-Fiction's Challenge to the Contemporary Novel.” The Quietus, 24 November, 2013 (accessed March 2016): http://thequietus.com/articles/13961-deep-map-gareth-rees-marshlands.

Rees, Gareth E. The Marshman Chronicles, n. date (accessed March 2016): http://www.marshmanchronicles.com/.

Rees, Gareth E., and Spanton, Simon. “edgeland: marshland.” 3:AM Magazine. 20 March 2014 (accessed March 2016): http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/edgeland-marshland/.

Upstone, Sara. Spatial Politics in the Postcolonial Novel (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).

 

 

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