It’s never recommended to sneak a peak at the end of a book before you’ve finished. However, before I started reading Marshland properly (from the beginning as you should), I had already been invited by Rees to fact-check the chapter ‘Endgames’ which extensively features our campaign to try and save Leyton Marsh from the Olympic machine, a struggle set in its proper historical context via description of valiant battles for our marshes by the commoners of the past, albeit from the standpoint of, at times, a rather detached and weary narrator. Focused as I was solely on the accuracy of the facts, the nature of Rees’ Marshland definitely eluded me at this juncture, impressed as I was at Rees’ ability to both precisely and concisely convey these events whilst remaining non-plussed at his narrator’s borderline cynicism for the camp which had been established on Leyton Marsh in a fierce attempt to save it.
What mattered little was that I didn’t read the book in chronological order, since this heady mixture of fact and fiction exceptionally and masterfully weaves its way from past to present, to imagined past, to imagined future and back again. Anyone who has stumbled across the marshes as a solitary and unprepared visitor will share much of Rees’ surprised fascination with this unique place nestled in the heart of East London. Marshland is an apt title for an adventure taking place in a ‘land’ both far away in the past, mystical as a dark fairytale, giving hazy definition to the borders of this wild land, astonishingly still here in the present and reached by a number of regular London streets.
Rees’ wry and detached persona has elements of Self’s witty but misanthropic narration, yet contains a humanising reverence for the history and idiosyncratic splendour of the marshes. The opening of the journey is many ways the same humble and mundane one many of us take, from our familiar and at times claustrophobic modern domestic set-up, as we set off on a daily walk with our pet canine. Yet Rees elevates the narrative through a self-deprecating humour which afforded me more than a few laughs of familiar self-recognition, as his dog Hendrix lands him in some uncompromising positions by the river Lea. We’re led on inexorably to his ardour for the pylons dotted about the marshes. Whilst unusual, this love is somewhat infectious and expressed with witty aplomb, avoiding getting tangled up in the type of obscure prose that has put me off the works of other highly rated psychogeographers (mentioning no names).
Imaginative flights of fancy are spurred on through random encounters, snippets of news and an undoubtedly meticulously researched obsession with historical landmarks on the marshes. When out walking on Hackney Marshes, on the vast open ground, you are cast back in time by the medieval sounds of a murder of crows. Your interest is piqued at the knowledge of the Victorian water system at the site of the Middlesex Filter Beds. You wonder at the bomb rubble beneath your feet (or piled up high into the sky, as the Olympic Delivery Authority left it, fully exposed for weeks at Leyton Marsh). Yet its to Rees’ almighty credit that he is able to transform these fleeting imaginings into full colour motion, inhabiting his scenes with characters earthly enough to relate to, yet unearthly enough to convey the mystical magic of the marshes. For me, this makes the fine illustrations redundant; all this is achieved through the accomplished and genre-bending prose alone.
The spectre of development lurks in the shadows of this book and leaves you perversely rather looking forward to Rees’ prescient projection of flooded future, rather than the reclamation of this land by ugly capital, passing itself off as benign-sounding ‘regeneration.’ That is, unless the rival spirit of the commoners, which flashes across the pages, can illuminate a better shared future for our marshes. After all, the Games may be over but the ‘Endgames’ haven’t happened yet!
Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London by Gareth E. Rees is available from Influx Press
N.B. This review was written by Caroline Day and does not necessarily reflect the views of every Save Lea Marshes member, some of whom may appreciate the undisputed talents of Ian Sinclair.