The Manchester Review
Paul Farley/Michael Symmons Roberts
From 'Edgelands'
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In the middle years of the last decade a photographer called Henry Iddon took to lugging his gear into the Westmoreland and Cumbrian hills of the Lake District region, climbing high into the dusk and screwing his camera to a tripod on the tops of Coniston Old Man, Black Coombe, Thornthwaite Beacon, Helm Crag, Skiddaw, Whin Rigg, to wait for nightfall, and the onset of the darkest hours. Above an invisible auditory ceiling, the soft roar of road traffic fades away, to be replaced by the wind, Herdwick sheep and the occasional cry of a bird as the nightshift takes over. The long-exposure images he made on those journeys captured the darkness and stillness of the fells, the deep ground of the image cauterised here and there by the hot weld of car headlights cutting the path of a main road, or the hotel glare from the tourist honeypots.
   But when Iddon opened the shutter for those brief seconds and allowed the night in, he sometimes also caught the distant towns and cities. In the Coniston Old Man image, the camera is pointing south, across towards the Westmoreland coast, Morecambe Bay and the Fylde beyond, though translated into this heightened digital world the lowlands where people live and work look like roiling lava fields, the glowing coals of the distant roads and street lamps and floodlit car parks and retail centres. It’s like seeing the ghost of heavy industry, its long-extinguished blast furnaces and smelting plants and ironworks, all fired up and working again. The edgelands must lie somewhere between this Romantic night and that crucible of molten tungsten, sodium and halogen.

   I have been one acquainted with the night.
   I have walked out in rain – and back in rain.
   I have outwalked the furthest city light.

Robert Frost’s lyric ‘Acquainted with the Night’ suggests an archetypal early twentieth-century urban edge: one last symbol of civility and order in the form of a street lamp burning on the road that leads beyond the outskirts. As such roads become lanes, their last highwalled houses hold on to the only sources of artificial light, beneath a strong moon that outshines all beneath it: the late nineteenth century of Atkinson Grimshaw. Beyond this, all is night.
   In early twenty-first-century England, such darkness is much harder to find. There are three kinds of light pollution: ‘sky glow’ is the aura visible above our urban areas, amplified by water droplets in the air and other particulate matter; ‘glare’ is the fixed and intense brightness created by golf driving ranges or distribution centres or rail maintenance gangs; ‘light trespass’ is the general leakage of artificial light from badly designed street lamps or security lamps. Light itself has become toxic.


What does the edgelands night look like? Looking up, a cloudy night can give back anything from a muddy orange to a bruised magenta, with many nuances of pink and red and brown in between. It’s the colour of an artist’s palette, if the different pigments are overworked and allowed to blend together into a warm grey sludge. A meatpaste sky. Gentleman’s Relish.