The linear city: an elongated urban settlement, generally following a river or shoreline. It is a fascinating concept. Urban planner Arturo Soria y Mata formulated the idea in the late nineteenth century. He wanted to turn Madrid into a chain of structures running along the Rio Manzanares. Mikhail Aleksandrovich Okhitovich and Nikolay Alexandrovich Milyutin further developed the theory in 1920s/30s Russia, if only on paper. And Le Corbusier popularised the idea for modernists in a series of unrealised schemes.
But, in Edging the Estuary, Peter Finch suggests their futuristic plans weren’t quite so original. He points to Tudor times, when the King’s officers at Cardiff’s Custom House collected taxes levied on goods brought in by boats from Chepstow to Worm’s Head. In essence, it was all designated the port of Cardiff. It is not hard to see why this idea inspired the author of the Real Cardiff series to trek the length of the Severn Estuary and to write about his journey.
However, as Finch says, Edging the Estuary isn’t a walker’s guide. His aims were loftier, or, at least, rather more obscure. That is because Finch is a self-defined psychogeographer. And so this meant ‘engaging in geography, social geography, topographical geography, fantasy geography and geography that I created by tossing dice in the air’.
The result is a dense and meandering read of personal anecdote, historical fact, cultural musing, adventure, polemic, and much, much else. Often, the discursions are less than tenuously connected to the estuary and its towns. ‘Deviation has always provided the interest’, as the author says.
Finch handles these various threads in impressive style. Certainly, this is an imaginative and informative book. But, it is not an altogether satisfying one.
Following the format of Finch’s Real series, Edging the Estuary has mini-chapters on each of the places the author visits. Fellow Real scribes Nigel Jenkins and Lynne Rees tag along to act as local experts in Swansea and Port Talbot. A wide cast including other writers, local historians and environmentalists also assist Finch as he seeks to get under the skin of places like Kenfig, Wentlooge, Nash and Porthcawl. Disappointingly, the Englishtowns of the estuary are all too quickly dealt with in 30 pages or so.
In his wanderings, Finch has a particularly keen eye and clever word for the ‘wreckage of industry’, to be found in the shrunken ports, power stations and wastelands of our coast.’What is it with industry that makes it so psychogeographically attractive?’, he asks. Finch’s kindred spirits – and betters – include Iain Sinclair and the great Jonathan Meades, explorers of edgelands and champions of the decaying and under-appreciated.
The more historical sections of the book cover The Great Flood of 1607, when a tidal wave drowned two thousand people along the coast, and Gloucestershire’s Severn Beach, which was ‘the Blackpool of the West’ in the 1930s.
In all this meandering, Finch places himself very much at the forefront of the story. There is a fair amount in the way of things-that-Peter-did-that-happen-to-have-taken-place-near-the-coast.
In fact, Finch’s clear and constant voice occasionally veers towards the over-bearing. This happens not least when this four-time Real author (and Real series editor) lists the highly impressive attributes needed by a Real author. And some of his observations can grate. At Swanbridge, there ‘is not a sign of anything remotely cool’ as the author finds ‘the expected mix of kids, men in vests, women in on-the-razzle high-rise high heels, tights and bulging fatness’. The clientèle of Minehead’s Butlins are dealt with in a similar fashion: ‘blokes with bags of chips, women with giant handbags, drink going down like fury as a bulwark.’ The holiday centre visitors are ‘either captivated by the ready access to constant drink and the ease with which the alcoholic days flow by or they’re so upset by the state of the accommodation… they vow never to return’. ‘Butlins fills a need’, the author acknowledges, but it is one he seems happy to deal with in lazy generalisations.
And when Finch is entirely flummoxed by the abbreviation ‘SF chicken’ on a Caerleon takeaway menu (‘science fiction chicken’, he jokingly guesses), you find yourself thinking the author needs to get real.
Another disappointment is Finch’s lack of major engagement with the actual estuary. Early on, Finch interestingly says ‘the whole sense of us as a maritime nation is in retreat’. But, on his coastal path, the author seems more interested in looking in than out. At one point, he even jests ‘the problem with a book about the coast is the sheer ubiquity of the sea’. Edging the Estuary is more the idle and urgent chatter of friends than it is the quiet thought of a solitary waterside-trek. That is all well and good. But, at times, this story of an estuary and its people could have done with a longer lens and a more reflective style.
That is not to say Finch does not seek to address some ‘big questions’.
At St Pierre, Finch finds ‘Borderland. Half English, half Welsh. Part Norman. Ravaged by Viking. Infiltrated by the Irish. Settled by Welsh Englanders. A place that’s forever uncertain of where its heart actually beats’. And border country also leads him to opine ‘if ever a land knew how to retreat into virtual invisibility then Wales is it. We’ve lost the courage to be what we are.’ In fact, a number of Finch’s most interesting observations come when he is near the border and where the estuary is becoming the river.
Certainly, these passages and others hint at the key issues of identity and our modern-day relationship with our waters. But they come and go a little too quickly. The Severn Estuary remains many unconnected places and stories. The estuary and its towns do not become the figurative linear-city that Finch set out with in mind. At one point, Finch hits on a key reason for this: there’s a lack of interchange between Swansea and Cardiff and between Cardiff and Bristol. But he then casually explains this away in six words (‘Mostly we stay where we are’). During his cross-border quest, Finch neither finds the estuary’s essential story nor explains why there isn’t one.
Of course, to be fair, Finch wasn’t looking for tidy answers. No doubt, that is not what pyschogeographers do. But, ultimately, the Severn Estuary and its edge remain seemingly unknowable, which is to the estuary’s credit if not to Finch’s.
Make no mistake, this is a well-written, interesting and impressive book. But, somehow, it seems a little less than the sum of its parts. The estuary will need to be explored and explained further. And that is no bad thing, after all.