Outskirts is probably the most touching book about urban planning you’ll ever read.
Ostensibly it’s a history of that misunderstood, yet controversial feature of the British landscape, the green belt. Taking the reader through the history of this sometimes loved but mainly hated feature of our landscape, it explains the somewhat confused heritage of that often-not-very verdant orbital and how it came into being as a result of Nimby-ism, a series of strange compromises, and the efforts of a group of determined, frustrating, visionary, yet closed-minded little Englanders.
More than this though, it acts of a prescient piece of contemporary political analysis, investigating whether the green belt acts as a barrier to affordable homebuilding in southern England and why it continues to serve as a point of conflict between the comfortable shires and constricted urrbanites.
I should at this point, make a confession. I’m a huge fan of the author, John Grindrod. His last publication, Concretopia, about post-war British architecture, is perhaps the best work of modern history I’ve read recently.
But even bearing that caveat in mind, Outskirts is a special book.
Rather than just a straight work of historical investigation, it’s equally an autobiography, a touching summary of the author’s life, and his family’s existence, that uses the evolution of the green belt as a yardstick against which to judge their progress. So we hear about the author coming to terms with his sexuality, about how his mother coped with her disability, about his brother’s struggle with agoraphobia.
Grindgrod cleverly reveals how the conception and growth of a green belt is in many ways a mirror for a family life. There is excitement in the imagining, stumbles and setbacks, eventual successes but also opportunities missed or not fully exploited, a still constant wonder at what might have been.
It’s what I’d call a modern autobiography, one that uses a frame to help the reader’s understanding. The best recent comparison is probably Stuart Heritages’s Don’t be a dick Pete, which explained his life via his relationship with his brother.
But Outskirts surpasses other examples of this genre. Why? Because Grindrod is a special writer. Concise, to the point, yet still flowing and insightful, with sentences that twinkle through the mind. Just consider the opening two lines of the book, then tell me you don’t want to continue.
I grew up on the last road in London. At the end of our front garden there was a privet hedge, and beyond the rickety pavement there lay a narrow grass verge, street-lights that glowed a dim orange from dusk, and the road.
Lovely. So good at times it reminded me of the wonderful Robert MacFarlane.
If I had to nitpick, I’d say that some people may find it dips in energy around the middle-sections, when, both regarding the green belt and in the author’s personal life, not much seems to be happening. I also had an issue with the lack of pictures or maps in Outskirts (a strange publishing choice).
But those are minor quibbles. Even if urban planning or architectural history isn’t your bag, you should enjoy this book as sweet, kind-hearted, interesting and giving, a fitting tribute to the green belt.
John Grindrod grew up on ‘the last road in London’ on Croydon’s New Addington housing estate, surrounded by the Green Belt. He is the author of Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, described by the Independent on Sunday as ‘a new way of looking at modern Britain’. He has written for the Guardian, Financial Times, Big Issue and The Modernist and has worked as a bookseller and publisher for over twenty-five years. He runs the popular website dirtymodernscoundrel.com and can be contacted on Twitter @Grindrod.
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Review by Joseph Surtees
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