A few years ago I decided to follow a stream that ran through the town I was then living in. It was not an especially pretty beck or memorable brook – mainly trapped in concrete-walled culverts and hidden beneath grills, it was an ordinary lowland British stream – but I wanted to track it to its source. I walked for seven hours on a thundery day, midge-bitten and nettle-stung, pinballing from industrial estate to muddy ring-road. And why? Because water, especially flowing water, has a hold over the human psyche that is both wonderful and terrifying.
The new compendium, Caught by the River: A Collection of Words on Water, knows much about river-wonder. It also shows, in its 40-odd brief narratives about being by, on, or in rivers, how so much of this wonder comes about: it is through the exactly described quotidian becoming transformed. Yet British literature is already full of models for writing the river-run: from the comedic archetypes of, say, Three Men in a Boat; to rivers being in and out of time – Heart of Darkness makes the Thames, sullen in the evening light, a connective thread to the Congo. And, for children, if it isn't Tarka the otter plashing away from the hounds, it is Philippa Pearce's wondrous tale of a boy and his canoe, Minnow on the Say. But Caught by the River manages to be different from the flood-tide of implicitly watermarked pages.
First, it is beautiful in its simplicity: it doesn't have a hectoring truth, worthy plan or manifesto. It is, instead, a mix of reminiscences, travelogues and meditations covering fishing, swimming, observing and ice-skating. But its particular contributors also unify it into an immediate classic. For the editors have a history in music, and especially at Heavenly Records – the perceptive hipster's label of choice. Their introduction describes the editing process as akin to making a compilation album, and many of their contributors are best known as musicians. If it is an album, Caught by the River is definitely one with a few standout, floor-filling songs: Bill Drummond on the Penkil Burn; Karl Hyde on the Severn ("I looked around at the water and smiled. Everything was going to be amazing now"); and Jarvis Cocker's inflatable-boat voyages. Cocker captures a superb moment of fear and absurdity on his expedition down the River Don: "as we approached Rotherham, we came across a man attempting to shoot fish with an air rifle – whilst uttering the immortal words: 'Stitch that you bastards!'" There is also Jon Savage on the Thames; the palm reading of flow-lines in Cornwall; and the rebirth of hidden Sussex streams.
To approach writing on water from a musical perspective has quite a history. It is partly about the forms of attention that the musician-writers bring – a willingness to discard the narrative trudge for pace, sounds, odd images and refrains. Water, music and the shape of memories means this is a lawless and unpredictable book, like bubbles in a wake. But it is also – intellectually and physically – solid and built to last. It is the kind of hardback that will be returned to – to be read, to have mementoes stuck in it and pages folded down talismanically. It is good that the editors included a coracle-maker explaining his skills; they too have built a worthy vessel for the rivers.Reuse content