London’s Hackney Marshes exist in a world that is neither urban nor rural, where everything is just slightly out of place, off-kilter. Birds pine for the real countryside. Londoners playing football seem ill at ease, keeping to the exposed, drained centre, unlikely to explore the darkening edges and damp corners once their games have finished. It is a landscape visited by many but settled by no-one, other than a few Romany travellers who made it their home over a hundred years ago, and have long since departed.
Poet and blogger Gareth E. Rees wandered and waded into this liminal world, where ‘all is well and nothing is as it seems’, some time ago and emerged with the material that became A Dream Life Of Hackney Marshes and its companion piece, an illustrated book called Marshland. For the recording he enlisted the help of contemporary compositional ensemble Jetsam, whose woodwind, piano, strings and electronics lend a hushed gravitas to the damp, strange narrations.
Each track sheds light on a different facet of the landscape – not just its birdlife and grey skies and muddy rivers but also the manmade wildernesses of Sunday league pitches, pylons and canals. Indeed, an important feature of these song-poems is the way they blur the lines between human, natural and supernatural. In the opening track, A Hole In London, the marshes is portrayed a some kind of mysterious magnetic life force with the power to imbibe – or to subtly change – anything around it, including time. The marshes, it is implied, are timeless and endless. The detritus of raves and sporting events rubs shoulders with ancient wild flowers and Victorian ruins.
Rees is an accomplished poet. This much is made clear by the simple starkness of his imagery and the originality of his anecdotal voice. He also has a keen eye for historical detail. A canal boat glides by, taking on the aura of a stately Spanish galleon, and a rudimentary aeroplane is dragged out in front of a crowd for its first attempt at flight.
The album’s centrepiece is Angel, a love poem to an electricity pylon. It epitomises the weirdness of a place where a man can be lonely enough to long for the structured grace of an inanimate object. For a while singing takes over from the spoken word as human emotion temporarily transcends the ageless fixity of the marshland.
On Echo Lament Rees explores London’s wartime history, followed all the while by ominous percussive footsteps, and Song Of Pigeons concludes the album with some neat, Steve Reich-inspired minimalism courtesy of fluttering violins and flutes topped off with looped field recordings.
As a piece of art A Dream Life Of Hackney Marshes is an ambitious undertaking, bursting its muddy banks with originality. It exists simultaneously as a historical document and a contemporary love poem to an unfairly overlooked place. As a piece of music it is excitingly varied and beautifully performed.
Review by: Thomas Blake
A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes was released on Clay Pipe Music but is now Sold Out. You can purchase a digital copy via Bandcamp here.
Cocker spaniel by his side, Rees wanders the marshes of Hackney, Leyton and Walthamstow, avoiding his family and the pressures of life. He discovers a lost world of Victorian filter plants, ancient grazing lands, dead toy factories and tidal rivers on the edgelands of a rapidly changing city. Ghosts are his friends. As strange tales of bears, crocodiles, magic narrowboats and apocalyptic tribes begin to manifest themselves, Rees embarks on a psychedelic journey across time and into the dark heart of London.