Abandonment, Trespass and Flood: Unofficial Britain’s Strange & Unsettling Reads of 2021

Gareth E. Rees with his annual list of books about landscape, memory and culture

WORDS: Gareth E. Rees

This autumn, I sold my house and moved into a new place with my partner, blending our two families, including four kids and a geriatric cocker spaniel. It’s going very well – thanks for asking – but, alas, my entire book collection currently resides in a ceiling-high stack of brown boxes.

I dug into a few of them to try and extract the books I read this year, but couldn’t find them all. This means that my descriptive blurbs are mostly written from memory. So please forgive me for the briefness, and for any inaccuracies. All I can say is, go and read them. You’ll definitely like them. Or maybe you won’t. “Don’t @ me”, as they say. Life’s too short.

A quick word on the criteria for my selection – there isn’t one, other than that I happened to read them this year and I think readers of this website might find them of interest. They’re a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and not all of them were published in 2021 (some are from last year and one is from next year). In fact they are not all even based in Britain. (Dear god. This is editorial chaos.)

Islands of Abandonment – Cal Flynn (Harper Collins, 2021)

I’d say this was my favourite non-fiction book of this year. The intrepid Flynn journeys through the world’s eerie, abandoned spots, from Chernobyl to Detroit, and describes their mutant, post-human landscapes with a keen journalistic eye for detail. The book captures the strange beauty of ecological breakdown and the weirdness that can result…. from feral cows returning to their evolutionary roots on abandoned Scottish islands, to carginogenic crabs in the waters of New Jersey, to unique mosquito species that have evolved in the London Underground.

The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again – M John Harrison (Gollancz, 2020)

I can’t remember if I read this in 2021 or 2020, or if I dreamed the whole thing and it now resides in pools of memory in my subconscious, taking the form of a novel whenever I think about it. The story takes place both in the murky docklands of London and in rural Shropshire, where its middle aged protagonists catch glimpses of fish-like humans, who might be manifestations of deeply-embedded evolutionary DNA that have become reactivated, or intimations of a flooded future. Another sublime piece of weird fiction from the master.

Mrs Death Misses Death – Salena Godden (Canongate, 2021)

Wolf Willeford, an East London poet, is visited by Death – a black woman who shapeshifts through a multitude of identities, from a homeless beggar to a hospital worker to Nina Simone, exhausted by her role in the world’s many murders and tragedies, those past and those to come. Among its ruminations upon loss, there are some wonderful evocations of urban London landscapes and impassioned passages about the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. Blending poetry, memoir and fiction, this book about death is surprisingly hopeful and uplifting.  

Brittle with Relics – Richard King (Faber, to be published in 2022)

This book isn’t out until next year, but I was lucky enough to read an advance copy. It is a compelling oral history of Wales between the years of 1962 and 1997, a transformative period in which a struggle for language, culture and community was played out against a backdrop of industrial decline. This book tells the extraordinary tale of activism and resistance that led to the bilingual signs we take for granted on Welsh roads today.

Imperial Mud: the Fight for the Fens – James Boyce (Icon books, 2020)

This is the story of a people’s struggle to hold onto their fertile, strange, intertidal world, against the invading forces of capitalism, colonialism and technology, which sought to drain and farm their land for profit. The result was that 99.9% of the original wetland has gone for ever, and the peat-stripped, dried-out remaining land has shrunk so much that it is seven metres below sea level in some places, leaving it one of Britain’s most vulnerable spots to future floods as a result of global warming.

These Towers will One Day Slip into the Sea – Gary Budden and Maxim Griffin (2021)

This short, collaborative work about the Reculver cliffs in Kent is a powerful elegy for a deeply layered landscape, where a ruined twelfth-century church sits on the site of a monastery, which is itself on the site of a Roman fort. Budden deftly describes a complex place that is in constant transition, accompanied by Maxim Griffin’s starkly layered, fracturing moodscapes.

Gigantic – Ashley Stokes (Unsung Stories, 2021)

I liked Ashley Stokes’ novel about deluded bigfoot hunters in Surrey so much that I told the publisher what I thought about it, and then they put those thoughts on the front cover. Hark at me! What I said was this: “A very funny account of cryptozoological shenanigans on the edge of urban Banstead. It’s not often these days that I laugh out loud when reading a book, but this one is rich with brilliant comic moments. Loved it.” I stand by my statement. Go and read it!

Self Portrait In Green – Marie Ndiaye (Influx Press, 2021)

This enigmatic and puzzling French novella is a fractured portrait of an unreliable narrator, which brings to mind a cubist painting. The narrator is haunted by visions of a green woman, who takes on a myriad of familiar forms, from old friends to her mother, sisters and step-mother, all of whom might (or might not) be extensions of her own psyche. While this is not at a landscape book, Ndiaye is brilliant at mapping the shifting and uncertain geographies of the human psyche.

Book of Trespass – Nick Hayes (Bloomsbury 2020)

I was given this book as a gift last Christmas and it went instantly to the top of my TBR pile. Hayes explores the edges of Britain’s privatised land, making experimental forays into the forests and fields where we are not permitted. It’s an expose of how most of our isles are in the grip of vested interests, and a passionate rallying call for our right to roam.

Monolithic Undertow – Harry Sword (White Rabbit, 2021)

As a fan of Hawkwind, German experimental music from the 70s, and contemporary ambient soundscapers like Richard Skelton, this was an obvious must-read for me, Sword’s entertaining book traces the origins of drone to its Neolithic, archaeoacoustic beginnings, then follows its oscillating journey through popular music and culture. I spent a long time with this one, mainly because I kept hopping onto YouTube to listen to the music. Not that I need much of an excuse to do that.     

Out of the Darkness – Ed. Dan Coxon (Unsung Stories, 2021)

Full disclosure: I have a short story about a B&Q car park haunted by vampiric entities in this British anthology of weird fiction and horror. But the other tales are really good, so I’d encourage you to get a copy. The collection examines mental health issues through the lens of the uncanny and weird, without resorting to tired tropes (eg. psychologically disturbed person goes on a killing spree). All the proceeds go to a mental health charity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gareth E. Rees is author of Unofficial Britain (Elliott & Thompson, 2020) Car Park Life (Influx Press 2019), The Stone Tide (Influx Press, 2018) and Marshland (Influx Press, 2013).

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