The Manchester Review
Paul Farley/Michael Symmons Roberts
From 'Edgelands'
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   Depending on where you are in relation to a city centre, one horizon might offer a roseate aura. Sometimes, a compass rose of light can surround you in this way, the glow of several cities. Clear nights can bring a few stars to the edgelands, though the best places to see those are unlit sites of dereliction that our motorways and business corridors have bypassed. Walking past the scrap-metal yards and among the long timber sheds on an industrial estate, with the nearest city centre a few miles away, our stargazing was constantly interrupted by security light. Even when finding a negative oasis of darkness, it’s difficult to see the shades of stars, their spectral colours, and to feel the size and scale of the night.
   On the ground, the edgelands are full of places that can flare up suddenly as if lit by a Very light over no-man’s-land. A fox patrolling the perimeters of its nocturnal beat trips the motion sensor on a halogen security light, flooding a loading bay on an industrial estate in a huge and pointless brightness. The fox freezes, its fear and vigilance recorded on CCTV and written in to the cobalt platter of a hard drive.
   ‘The newer the culture is, the more it fears nightfall,’ wrote the German journalist and historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch. There are many ghosts in the edgelands’ never-quite-dark. Post-industrial England is haunted by a future that never happened, and the inescapable truth that these are the results of our long reclamation of the night: a blackbird singing at midnight on a floodlit roundabout; the silvery lake surface of a deserted conference centre car park; the steadfast glow of bus-stop advertisements. Ballardian trickledown meant synth pop stars like Gary Numan could posit a future (from a vantage point sometime around 1980) where there would be no street lights, but no dark corners either. In this future that never happened:

All the buildings had lights in the walls, glowing depending on what time of day it was. As it got darker, they would glow brighter and brighter. Constant light, and everything was white. No humans, all machines, so it was clean; no dust, no pollution, nothing.

Thirty years on and this hygienic brilliance never quite materialised. Instead, our cities are threaded and surrounded by a halflit sprawl. We move through our own murky, night-vision home movies. Driving through edgelands at night can feel like diving onto a wreck.


The obsession with security lights on offices and warehouses has taken such a hold that many of us now feel we need them on our homes. In housing estates on the edges of our towns and cities this sets up a strange pattern, a slow Morse conversation between back gardens, with each ‘dash’ lasting thirty seconds. These give us some comfort. We like them to be working, but how do we act upon them? Do they wake us up? Do they wake anyone up? They offer a useful service to cats, to light up the rodent they are seeking to catch, so the rodent freezes in the halogen glare, giving itself up to the jaws.
   Perhaps this suggests another, less publicised, form of light pollution, of a kind that affects poets and lovers in particular. Take Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Sad Steps’, in which the poet ‘Groping back to bed after a piss’, parts the curtains to look out at the night sky and the gardens, and is ‘startled by / The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness’. In a beautiful description of a moonlit suburban landscape, Larkin describes: