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Book review: Car Park Life: A Portrait of Britain’s Unexplored Urban Wilderness by Gareth E. Rees

Review by Naomi Racz

Having enjoyed the blend of fiction and non-fiction in Gareth E. Rees’s debut book Marshland (2013), in which he explores, maps, and mythologises east London’s Hackney Marshes, I was immediately intrigued to see that his latest book is about car parks. I was even more intrigued when I saw the word ‘wilderness’ in the book’s title. 

Rees doesn’t explicitly address why he thinks car parks count as wilderness, but one potential etymology for the word wilderness goes back to Old English: will-of-the-land, or self-willed land[1]. Based on what Rees uncovers as he explores Britain’s car parks, it seems clear that they fit the bill for this type of wilderness. Despite the thin veneer of corporate blandness and control, car parks turn out to be places of history, nature, and mystery. They are also spaces of passion, sex, violence, murder, and burning rubber. They are self-willed. 

Each chapter of Car Park Life explores a different British car park. Along the way Rees observes their idiosyncrasies (an Asda in Silverhill that has a jurassic theme, for example, complete with dinosaur footprints, ferns, and a dinosaur mosaic frieze) and uncovers the hidden aspects most shoppers will never see, like the leat (an engineered watercourse) built in 1591 that he discovers in a car park near Plymouth. 

Rees finds nature in the form of shrubs, trees, flowers, foxes, and birds. He visits a Morrisons in Norwich in order to see a flock of pied wagtails sighted by the author Sarah Perry, but only manages to spot one. At a 24-hour Tesco in Warwick he finds a “branded edgeland wilderness”: a small nature reserve attached to the Tesco, complete with Tesco-branded information signs. 

Rees also sees nature in the faded and cracked images on the side of the nature reserve Tesco: 

Even plastic and glass must succumb to the ravages of time, light and atmosphere. There is no denying nature. It is not seperate to supermarkets, motorways and car parks. It doesn’t disappear when we tarmac it over. There is a creeping garden beneath us, seeking an opportunity to flourish in the cracks of things we build. 

When that opportunity arises (and Rees is feeling particularly apocalyptic as he contends with the mental demons brought on by a sudden and unexpected divorce, Brexit, Trump, and the hazy heat wave of 2018 that set parts of the UK on fire): Car parks will lie unattended, sprouting buddleia, as foxes rut and rats forage in the store interior

As well as nature, Rees uncovers a wildness at the heart of Britain’s car parks in the form of boy racers, murder, and sex. He recounts multiple stories of car parks being used as racing tracks (sometimes with tragic consequences), as spots for hits, as a place to hook up, and sometimes, unwittingly, as a final resting place. At one point Rees visits a car park in Huddersfield and unknowingly walks within metres of a dead body that will not be discovered for another few weeks. 

Through Rees’s explorations and the stories he recounts, we are shown a world that is far darker than the one typically brought to mind when we think of our local supermarket car park. In fact, googling car park and the name of the town I live in resulted in a few gruesome news stories. I’m hoping my next trip to the supermarket will turn up some rare birds, maybe a raccoon or two. Perhaps I’ll even catch a glimpse of that creeping garden poking through the cracks…

[1]  This blog post attributes this etymology to philosopher Jay Hansford Vest:

Car Park Life: A Portrait of Britain’s Unexplored Urban Wilderness by Gareth E. Rees is published by Influx Pressour thanks to Influx Press for providing an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review! 

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