“Dry and often very funny” – Unofficial Britain by Gareth E Rees

It feels about the right time for an alternative history of Britain. Gareth Rees opens his latest work of non-fiction by destroying the quaint myth of English life, “most of us today don’t live in picture-postcard villages with thatched roofs, medieval inns and ancient customs, and there is a danger in fetishising that past as a halcyon world that has since been contaminated by technological progress, urbanisation and immigration.” He argues strongly that there has never been a “pure” version of Britain, and the website he set up in 2014, from which Unofficial Britain takes its title, was in part a way to interrogate this idea and present a history and exploration of overlooked places in the country.

The book is no repurposing of that websites content (great though those articles and essays were), but a wry, weird and often very compelling travelogue around a country that feels far more recognisable through Rees’ eyes that it does through the eyes of many other writers. Here, Rees explores ghost hunters in Grimsby’s council estates, the mysterious druidic origins of roundabouts, and the strange allure of pylons, presenting a haunted, mystical, but completely grounded history.

Rees’ voice is dry and often very funny, and key to the success of the book is that this humour is never directed at the people he encounters. He visits run down places, working class towns, and at least one official “crap town” but he’s not there to mock those who live in places like that, nor is he a poverty tourist. When he goes to Grimsby, he’s there looking for “local weirdness”, and uncovers the story of a series of hauntings in a nearby council estate, a story that has somehow become so banal that it doesn’t even occur to people to tell him about it at first.

With each chapter covering a different topic, a book like this has the potential to feel disjointed, a series of essays rather than a book as a whole, but Unofficial Britain succeeds because of Rees’ place as a narrator. The chapters are laced with stories of his own childhood, moving around the country (and Europe), growing up in the shadow of industry, and each chapter ends with a poem penned by Rees. In this way, it carries a narrative that is not dissimilar to Ben Myers’ terrific Under the Rock. As with Myers’ book, Unofficial Britain is a book about landscape, about the author themselves, and also about the influence that landscape has had on art. Rees talks about the “haunted generation” and their fear of electricity pylons, thanks to a terrifying series of public safety adverts, he brings up Kit Caless’ great book on Spoons Carpets and David Southwell’s excellent Hookland.

In amongst all of this though is the message that, “anybody should be able to feel a connection with place, no matter where they grew up or where they live, even in the densest concrete jungles or the most monotonous suburban sprawls. Any material can become a repository for memory once it becomes saturated with life and death, love and loss.” It’s a worthy statement and one that rings true.

Any Cop?: Absolutely. An off-kilter, very funny exploration of a Britain that a lot of us would recognise. Highly recommended.

 

 

Daniel Carpenter

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