In this review, Jon Petre explores Cathy Galvin’s recent publication, Walking The Coventry Ring Road With Lady Godiva (Guillemot Press, 2019), from the edgelands to the underland, tracing the book’s poetic psychogeography and politics.
In silence and in solitude we went one first, the other following her steps…
> In 2002, Marion Shoard coined the term ‘Edgelands’ to describe the hinterland that crops up between over-planned urban spaces and the countryside. Think of railway embankments and concrete-banked rivers; the edges of car parks and skip grounds behind schools; the offcuts of city planners and the blind spots of brutalists. The edgelands are rarely green and pleasant. They are surprisingly fertile, though, and the presence of trolleys, graffiti and cig ends mark the edgelands as distinctively human spaces. I have always wanted to explore the edgelands. They are everywhere, hidden in plain sight, an alt-highway running into the hidden psyche of ostensibly dull places. If you want to get to the heart of somewhere stick to the edges.
> Cathy Galvin’s Walking The Coventry Ring Road With Lady Godiva is edgelands poetry. Coventry was almost completely destroyed in the blitz, and when the city was rebuilt it became a landscape of concrete, pedestrianised shopping centres and the eponymous ring road. No wonder it’s been called a ghost town, and here Coventry’s ghosts will be telling us all about their native city. Lady Godiva, who rode naked through the streets in defiance of her husband’s orders, must surely rank as Coventry’s most famous flaneur; it’s her we follow, in silence and solitude, on a pilgrimage through the edgelands.
> Each canto explores a different period in Coventry’s history – from the distant memory of Godiva’s mythic ride, to the fresh scar of the speaker’s parents’ death – casting Coventry in a composite, piled-up manner. Godiva’s derive follows the route of Coventry’s ring road, starting from the ruins of a monastery under the motorway and ending near the mass grave of the city’s war dead. This is, Galvin suggests, also a katabasis – a journey to the underworld – and Godiva is the Virgil to our Dante:
Beside me in the Cheylesmore underpass, She took my hand and said: Abandon fear.
> Though we may well be heading into the underland, we shouldn’t abandon hope. The ring road is littered with bits and pieces, the city’s junk and its heritage: ‘rubble, willow, nettle, fern’, ‘speed, road, and time’. Most of the city’s history is unwritten – it’s been built over or rubbed out by successive generations – and by recalling the leftovers, the speaker re-animates the past in ‘a liturgy of clinker, glassy tap slag, bottle. Brick’. Exploring the buried-beneath past through language is no retreat, therefore, but an act of restoration:
She knelt to stoke The clay-red earth With fire. Flesh Reborn of bone: child, Pig, horse and hare.
> Walking The Coventry Ring Road is dedicated ‘To the people of Coventry […] In particular, to those who live near the section of the ring road that was built the year I was born.’ There’s something pleasingly democratic about this statement, from Galvin’s ‘Note on the Text’; Walking The Ring Road is psychogeography for everyone, a collective history.
> Galvin is clearly having a lot of fun mixing her references to Coventry history and other texts – quoting The Specials alongside Dante, which is 100% my shit – and stitching letters to Phillip Larkin and legalese about the ring road’s construction into art. Poetry about a city that’s been built up, stitched together and destroyed more than once calls for hybrid forms and voices; Walking The Coventry Ring Road seeks to empower the people behind the stories. The edgelands around the ring road are a site of potential, and Galvin has used her skill as a poet to put the otherwise unglamorous stories of the ring road on the map.
> Galvin’s verses are neat and measured– in sharp contrast to Kirsty Campbell illustrations throughout the text, which punctuate the ordered cantos with a disturbing ambiguity. Campbell’s illustrations are constructions of geometric forms and human markings and rubbings. It’s like an artist has taken a worn out image of some earlier art and drawn over it – not unlike the vibe of the ring road itself, all clean design and vaguely utopian principle at first blush, now marred and dirty after fifty years’ constant use. Campbell’s illustrations lend Walking The Coventry Ring Road another layer of mystery, refusing to directly illustrate the images in the poetry. Because they’re so abstracted from Galvin’s poetry, we’re forced to perform a kind of Rorschach test: what am I looking at, beside the description of a bombing raid? Is it a fire, an ash mark, a charred person? Troubling and juicy stuff.
> In poetry and prose, psychogeography is in vogue. Perhaps it’s because so many of us feel aimless, but there is something very productive about wandering as an aesthetic act and finding so much worth remembering or thinking about. Consciously or not, we are affected by our environments physically, emotionally and psychologically. Looking at the way that historical pile-ups and destruction has made a place like Coventry the way it is today is another way of looking at ourselves. Coventry’s punk scene is an especially positive part of the story ‘England’s dreaming Pistols and punk / peaches on beaches’ are up against ‘that figure head – / not what she seems, the Queen, the fascist regime’. Revolution and radical change has to start somewhere, as Lady Godiva herself proved – why not at the Coventry ring road?
> The final illustration in Walking The Coventry Ring Road is also the cover image. It is a large black half-rhombus, which seems to be breaking off at the bottom, and at the top there is a smudge of movement running the length of the big shape. To me, this is the ring road itself – a crumbling concrete edifice whose solid bulk contrasts with the speedy things that drive across it. The suggestion of quick, stampeding movement reads to me as a call to action. Cathy Galvin has taken her hometown and explored its edgelands through poetry and history: now it’s our turn.
Walking The Coventry Ring Road With Lady Godiva is published by Guillemot Press (£7.00). Order a copy here.
Text: Jon Petre
Images: Guillemot Press