Township twitching

I wrote this story for Caught By The River on Kliptown’s only bird tour guide after my recent trip to Soweto. It was published today, on the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa.

There’s only one picture on the story so I thought I’d share a few more.

Meet Bafana, Soweto poet and bird tour guide.


Bafana II

An orchid growing by a Kliptown portaloo.

Orchid

Bafana’s garden, previously a rubbish tip.

Bafana's garden II

 

 

 

A Year In Oxleas Woods

My Up The Woods column for Caught By The River has transformed into a monthly piece about Oxleas Woods. I’m reposting them here, although the originals remain on CBTR proper.

A Year In Oxleas Woods: January

On the floor of Oxleas Woods there’s a circle of dropped leaf, twig and acorn underneath a tree. It’s not a special tree, just one I’ve stopped under during this autumn stroll. The acorns have been on the floor for a few weeks now, and no doubt some of them will have been trodden into the ground and into the blackness ready to push through in the spring.

I find two smooth, plump acorns and put them in my pocket. At home I plant them, one each in a small black pot and put them between the window and the kitchen sink. It’s a nice spot: I stand at the sink and wash up, looking down the road where there are scrappy trees and bushes and lines of parked cars. It’s an edgeland of sorts, between urban and suburban, and I’ve just brought a tiny piece of ancient woodland into it. The wood’s Saxon name refers to oxen pasture and the ground there has been pushing up trees and watching them fall for thousands of years. Some parts of Oxleas date back to the ice age, although these days the woods fizz with barky dogs, not cattle.

My windowsill, onto which I’ve translocated these acorns, has only been here since 1988. I have a passing thought that perhaps I’ve committed a crime of space and time, stealing children from the oak mother and hurtling them through the centuries so that they’re growing up to the sight of streetlights and Nissan Micra rather than the unbending scenery of oak with an understory of hazel and sweet chestnut.

For weeks nothing happens and then just before Christmas a fat tuft appears in one pot. Two weeks on and it’s still foetal, a thin green line topped with pre-curled leaf on the top. You can’t see the oak in it yet: the parts that will be leaves look like claws or deep-sea creatures or perhaps an exotic flytrap.

The new tree growing in my kitchen is on my mind when I go back to Oxleas Woods for a run on Boxing Day, amidst the statue silhouettes of the gorgeously stark trunks and branches and twigs. The trees look like charcoal sketches of synapses, all sky-cupping black lines and channels and diversions; living receivers and receptors ready for the atmosphere to signal the next phase of their growth.

I run down an incline and into a scrubby patch of wood with ankle-high leaf mulch and a large stand of scrappy hazel. I jog along minor paths, bending under branches and leaping badly over fallen trees. I tack across particularly muddy paths, like the kids at the start of Swallows And Amazons who pretend to sail down their garden.

Then I run into a small clearing and there’s a man with two squat dogs standing there. Freedom is suddenly transmuted into fear and as I pass him I’m no longer running towards something, I’m running away from it. The guy is just standing there with his dogs but his presence instantly shifts my perception of the place from benign to dangerous, even though we’re only ever minutes from the main road that sits hard at the edges of the woods. I’m reminded of the famous bandits who used Oxleas as cover in the Middle Ages and of the salutary gibbets that lined Shooters Hill, and I work my way towards the many muddy arteries that convey runners and amblers and dog walkers in loops.

There are two huge oak trees up by the café at the top of Oxleas Meadow, just before you reach the car park. They’re full of promise; all raw, living wood. The once-green leaf cover has turned brown and fallen into a circle of mulch and twig around the trunk. I’m looking upwards into the venous jumble of the naked crown when it occurs to me that the sapling at home already has leaves, or a proto-leaf, at a time when all of its siblings and cousins are undressed. The sapling is an end-of-year signal from the next generation that spring is coming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deptford Creek

The Creekside Centre in Deptford sits next to an industrial centre, off a brutal main road that links Greenwich to the Rotherhithe Tunnel. Inside, a tiny corridor is lined with shelves. This is the Centre’s collection of specialist detritus brought up from the Ravensbourne: ancient mobile phones, driving licences, bones, cans, a pair of Javan faces smoothed out from a broken statue. It looks like a conversationist’s version of the Mutoid Waste Company peopled not by dystopian desert punks but by folk in muddy red coats and waders, holding the big sticks that will keep them upright during the imminent low tide walk.

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Nick Bertrand is a conservationist with a seafaring laugh. He hoists himself onto the edge of a raised bed of wild flowers and gathers us round. What starts as a piece of incidental context – pointing out the Rue-leaved saxifrage behind him –  turns into a intriguing sermon on planting and self-seeding and the commodification of the wild. So-called wild cornflowers bought in your average garden centre, he says, actually come from Austria. “You’re being conned left right and centre,” he says, thrillingly, tossing facts about wildflowers inability to thrive away from their home like so many poppy seeds in the air. The flowers here at the Centre were translocated from a few miles away, which was lucky, he says, because the original site has been destroyed. Wild, it seems, is actually another way of saying ‘local’.

I’m here with my friend Kate Ling who wrote about this south London waterway in her award-winning poem Deptford Creek and we start the short walk to the river one in front of the other. This small incline, maybe a hundred meters, is a liminal zone. We’re already somewhere else – stepping out of normal life towards the water, dropping learned adult personas and adopting something receptive and natural. Land becomes specific: the slanted strip to our left comprises three distinct areas of marsh which changes by degrees before the transition into mudflat and water. These are distinct zones, with different needs and different communities. At the top, there’s round-headed Nordic native Angelica, down in lower marsh, there’s highly lethal water hemlock. So far, so exotic.

The creek is located at the tidal reach of the Ravensbourne, which meets our other local waterway, the Quaggy, behind Lewisham bus station before flowing into and out of the Thames. There’s the roller coaster rumble of the DLR above our heads, and we walk upstream towards a man-made bend. There are high bare walls and mud flats on either side of the slow green flow. We are in the deep ford that gave Deptford it’s name, a place that has been colonised by people since at least the 11th Century when the Domesday book notes eleven corn mills on the river, and where the original Golden Hind rested until it rotted and broke up.

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I learn a new word: ‘syzrygy’, which describes the lunar configuration of earth, sun and moon lining up at full moon and no moon, a configuration which explains why the shelves in the centre are so laden with lost and discarded items. The tide here lifts mud and objects in the water, carries them along, and then drops them down, relocated, at static high tide.

It feels good in the creek. I feel like I’m rowing the boat of myself, navigating through the water with the momentum of my big stick. Sadly I am a boat with a leak as one of my waders has a slow puncture and gradually I experience a tidal increase of water up my leg. When I eventually return and take my waders off I have a high tide mark, mid calf, where Ravensbourne dregs met not the exterior of rubber, but skin.

The creatures of the creek are all around us. Like the Asian Clam. It’s an invasive species that was first found eight years ago in Richmond, and is now everywhere. Experts have no idea what impact they’ll have. Then there are two swans, lurking in the stairwell of the creek bend. In the altered narrative of the low tide walk, the swans have become lemon-faced geezers outside a dodgy pub. They are to be respected and avoided. We purposefully avoid eye contact and pretend they’re not there.

Some creek life you have to really look for, like the baby flounder who dart around the creek bed like transparent shadows, or the algae that populates the ‘rot zone’  on the creek walls where alternate damp and sun provide perfect conditions for micro-organisms. Later in the summer the algae goes fluorescent green, then in winter it goes black, and the whole creek becomes monochrome.

Nick reaches underneath a brick and picks up two leeches. They are terrible, inky punctuation marks that wriggle across and inbetween his fingers. They are a black silky comma followed by a fat slash of the pen and I find myself wriggling backwards through the crowd when they’re shoved towards me. I do not like leeches, even if they do look as if they’ve come straight out of a Studio Ghibli film.

Safer are the Japanese Mitten crabs who live under a bit of chucked-away carpet. The crab is green, but that’s because it’s actually just a shell. Crab moved out when space got too tight. Nick opens up the flip-top mechanism of the shell, and to really does open like a hinged box. Then we find two big ones under a metal sheet. One gets away and the other is held above the water, arms and legs dancing in air until he’s gently returned to the rusting comfort of home.

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And that’s the thing. Rubbish is good for the river. When the Creekside Centre opened in 1999 they removed 14 shopping trolleys from the creek and fish stocks decreased by 50%. Our discarded debris replaces the natural habitats that used to hog the sides of the creek, like the reed beds. The trolleys are particularly good, because their metal grids become clogged with other bits of rubbish, which provide excellent hiding places for flounder, away from the bigger, badder guppy. We clear the river for people, Nick says, because of their perception of how the river should look.

It’s deep, this ford.

Originally posted on Caught By The River

Up The Woods #3

I’ve been writing each month about learning about trees. This third column first appeared on Caught By The River, as will each of the monthly posts. Illustration Matt Sewell.

I am now on first name terms with a whole swathe of common and everyday trees and a number of not-so-common ones growing in my part of south east London. I’m on nodding terms with the copper beech on the road to Lewisham; with the ubiquitous rabbit-eared horse chestnut; and even the frog-footed (distinctly non-native) ginkgo that sits on the hill that takes you out of Blackheath and back down to Lee Green. I’m now at the tree-language equivalent of being able to say please, thank you and ‘two bottles of beer’.

In my notebook, I’ve been keeping a list of trees I now recognise and the list is growing. I’m pretty confident with ash, and can almost tell an oak from a distance. It’s something about the slightly diffuse shape of the leaves that makes it look hazy against the horizon, unlike a beech, whose rounded leaves cup and curve the light more softly.

This week I grasped an important technical point: tree people describe leaves as ‘pinnate’ or ‘palmate’. It took me a while but I get it now: palmate just means that the leaf is shaped like your hand, with five fat fingers radiating out from a palm, like horse chestnut, or sycamore. Pinnate describes leaves that grow with their own little stalks off a long pin-like stalk, like ash or rowan.

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It really helps to understand this, because it’s a way of sorting and seeing families of tree types. Imagine for a minute you’re standing under a tree and it’s got palmate leaves that look a bit like a sycamore. It could be a sycamore or maybe a London plane, or perhaps a maple. Once you’re in the right general area (big tree, palmate leaves) you can start to find the detail. If you can see round, brown spheres hanging from the branches like woodland baubles, then it’s a plane. If it’s got seeds shaped like dolls-house coat hangers then it’s a sycamore, and if it’s got neither, and slightly smallish leaves then it’s a maple. I gave myself major bonus points when I stuffed a sycamore-ish leaf with a red stalk into my bag and worked out that it was probably a red maple. They’re all over the place in Lewisham! Who knew that the blue borough was a hotspot for Canada’s national treasure? If I’d have known earlier in the year, I’d have been up Mountsfield Park, fighting off the Staffie owners who hoist their dogs onto trees to strengthen their jaws, to do a bit of sap-tapping for my Saturday pancakes. I am told, also, that early birch leaves are good for a nibble, but that particular experiment will have to wait until next spring.

I’ve taken a scatter-fire approach to learning what the trees are called, using different resources including badgering people I know. I haven’t yet found a British tree book I really like, although I did get an excellent guide to New York’s wooded inhabitants when I was in that city last month. The trip included a feverish, flu-dosed afternoon lying on the grass in Central Park underneath a tree with paper-round seed pods which I eventually discovered was an elm. This felt like a bittersweet win: not only did I solve the puzzle of this particular tree, but it was an English tree in New York, and one that’s almost gone from our landscape, bar the 15,000 trees saved by Brighton Council during the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic of the 1970s.

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My New York book has been surprisingly useful, along with my trusty, basic Woodland Trust swatch of obvious trees, and a bit of internet, despite the fact that most tree ID websites are crap. There’s also my newly-developed habit of borrowing leaves to take home. I have a growing collection of faded leaves in small piles around the house, like chlorophyll cairns.

The problem with tree books is that the specimen they photograph is just one tree on one day and it’ll look different in June than it will in January. Young trees look different from old trees. No two trees look exactly the same so it’s hard to identify a tree from one single picture. I’m sure there are good apps but I left my iPhone in Rwanda (it’s a long story) and have been using a second-hand blackberry in the interim – a phone whose crappiness is perversely attractive in a world where the internet is everywhere all the time, hence still using it a month down the line even though it drives me mad.

One tree that’s hard to miss in south London is the sycamore. In fact, so many of these have self-seeded that they’re mostly considered a weed. Consequently, I had no qualms uprooting the skinny specimen on the builders hardcore and inch of soil on the side of my ’60s maisonette, where weeds fight (and win) a battle against the random plants I’ve chucked at the ground.

I have to make a confession here: I am no stranger to arborcide. When I moved in, I cut down three massive leyandii that were growing in my tiny yard because they provided so much shade that not even ivy grew. It was my own personal Scandi forest that turned my sunny and optimistic abode into permanent gothic gloaming, and they had to go. The trees had the last laugh, though. A year after they were felled, I got a man called Andy to come round with his stump grinder. One of the tree-shards flew up like a wooden Cruise missile and struck the middle of the patio doors, transforming the pane into a spiders web of shattered glass.

Learning about trees has made me notice more than just the species. I am suddenly aware of bad pollarding, like the leylandii in front of my house – yes, another one – where my neighbour hacked the top third off, leaving a jig-jag of brutalised trunk exposed on one side. On the other hand, I find myself noticing a particularly beautiful crown, like the tree on the corner of my friend’s road. I don’t what it is, but it’s in flower now and reminds me of a pretty child’s head after she’s had curlers and ribbons put into her hair. I’m not sure I’d have even noticed it before.

I remember now that I had the same experience of clarity increasing with knowledge when I decided to learn about clouds a few years ago. I had no handle on them apart from in the broadest sense (that one looks like a dog; those ones are orange and well emotional) and then after a few months they took on their individual beauty. Look how that Lenticularis sits in the sky, just there by itself like a gorgeous, soft UFO! Or, see that pretty piece of Vellum lounging next to a bunch of puffy Cumulus! Naming allows you to engage, and to like things more. It’s probably the same with people. I remember talking to a community worker on an East London estate who’d dealt with tensions simply by introducing residents to each other. The renegade kids became people with names, and the shouty, aggressive adults became people with names and everyone got on a whole lot better.

One final thing: I just read Jay Griffiths’s book, Kith. Some of her prose is a touch too pixie for me, but she has some wonderful things to say about childhood, the woods, and the roots and routes of words. The words tree, endure, tryst, trust and truth, she says, are all related to the common Indo-European, doru or dreu.

Trees, you see. They’re at the root of everything.

Up The Woods with Caught By The River

I’m very proud to be part of Caught By The River and very proud to be part of their summer festival events. Usually we’d all be heading down to Cornwall for Port Eliot but this year the good people of St Germans are taking a break. Instead, we’ll be at the new Open East festival at the Olympic Park and I’ll be hosting a panel on London’s influential pirate broadcasters.

I’ve also been writing a column for them on my mission to learn about trees. It’s called Up The Woods and you can read the first two here and here with lovely illustration from Matt Sewell. Column #3 coming next week.

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“The Great Gatsby meets The Wild Geese Uptown”

It was Port Eliot the weekend before last. I always enjoy this slightly deranged literary festival that manages to make even fashion people nice for the weekend, and this year was no different. It even marked the end of the biblical deluge we’d all been suffering for the previous three months.

I’d gone along as part of the brilliant and funny Caught By The River coterie, and hosted a conversation with Richard King about his book How Soon Is Now (read it, it’s great) which saw King tell funny and scurrilous stories about everyone from the KLF to The Smiths and explained why having a hit can be a disaster for an indie.

Caught By The River are a bunch of people I’m proud to be associated with, partly because, collectively, they’ve got more ridiculous music stories than almost anyone else, and also because they combine a serious love of music with a widescreen enthusiasm for the natural world. Down in their tent I heard Robert MacFarlane and nature soundman Chris Watson perform a reading and sound piece that wrapped around like a wave-lapped lullaby and I saw TOY frontman Tom Dougall (and his thousand yard stare) destroy the tent with a snaking mindbend of feedback and drone and tunes you wanted to adopt immediately.

However, the biggest mindbend came not from a bunch of bound-to-be-massive young and wild loopsters, but instead in a small white tent just across the green, hosted by Andrews of Arcadia. In fact, they bent my mind twice: first, when Andrews ran a series of slides and films that showed the tunny fishing madness that swept through the north-east coast of England in the 1930s. There were men and women, far out at sea in tiny white boats, dressed like they were about to go for tea with the captain, landing huge 700lb tuna in man V fish battles that sometimes went on for 14 hours. I’m going to blog more about this another time, but for the moment, let’s just say that it opened up a whole new world, and made this part of England’s past look alien and compelling and genuinely mesmerising.

The second Arcadian mindbend came from photographer Neil Thomson. He showed a photographic project he’s working on called Phantom Fields and Ghost Squadrons about the disused airfields that are hidden in the undergrowth throughout Norfolk and Suffolk. It’s a remarkable project that brings the relatively recent past into mesmeric rub with the future, and where’s he’s conjoured up the ghosts of stiff-upper lipped squadrons and jitterbugging GIs by photographing the fields that now cover the tarmac they landed on. Again, more on this later. For the moment, all you need to see if one of the photographs.

And if you’re wondering, it was Andrews of Arcadia who provided the title for this post. When he and Neil Thompson were interviewed by BBC Radio Cornwall, the presenter asked whether they’d donned their trademark look (roughly, from a laywoman’s point of view, original 1930s-early 1950s shirts and high-waisted trousers) just for the occasion. “We always dress like this,” said Andrews, dry as you like. “We’re like the Great Gatsby meets The Wild Geese uptown.”

All photography: Neil Thompson

Cloudbursting

This was posted on Caught By The River’s excellent blog, but I thought I’d repost it here. This is what happens when a cloudfiend has a lovely weekend in Cornwall – and it comes just a few weeks before I’ll be hosting an interview with Richard King at Port Eliot for Caught By The River. More posts to follow!

I went to a wedding in a lovely part of Cornwall last weekend, just along the coast from Penzance. The nuptials took place at a house in Prussia Cove, and afterwards, there was a party in a marquee. There was a pleasing contrast between the life and new beginnings captured inside the canvas walls and the risk of death – or at least substantial injury – from the precipital edge of the world which you’d have tumbled down had you taken more than twenty steps in a straight line from the tent exit. This is a part of the world where things end, and things begin, often quite literally.

The day had been hot and clear and during the evening, clouds came in from the sea and it rained fat rain which soaked everything. It meant the wedding party, all beautiful girls in bright orange dresses and men looking unusually smart, stayed inside with the fairy lights and Fela Kuti songs, rather than seeping out into the garden, and it also meant that the ground got drenched. This is a pertinent fact, so I’d be grateful if you’d hold it in your head for just a moment.

I had a lovely evening. I didn’t really want to leave, but I’d booked a ride from fantastically-titled local firm Nippy Cabs and it took me back up the lane to my B&B. The next morning, after a chat with the owner about the Staffordshire potteries (they called the factories ‘pot houses’) I walked back down to meet the rest of the wedding party. It was a wonderful walk, down maybe two miles of lane that slid gracefully towards the sea. I saw fat-headed purple foxgloves and in the sky, a Kelvin-Helmhotz. It’s a rare formation that looks like someone’s drawn a line of surf in the sky, and I’ve only ever seen one before. I always consider it a good omen.

Around a corner, a couple of stout middle-aged Midlanders were standing at an opening to a field. There were great curves of smoke, blowing off the freshly ploughed soil, over the hedge to the next (non-smoking) field. I’m a suburban south Londoner but even I knew it was too early to burn stubble. It looked, to put it mildly, very weird.

The whole brown mass was smoking. The field was big, ranging down an incline and bordered to the left by tall hedgerow. The smoke was so thick, I couldn’t see through to the far end. What was going on?

The man in shorts helped me out. “It was the rain, last night. Now it’s warmed up”

It wasn’t smoke, it was a cloud.

It was cloudbirth. I was seeing great swathes of condensation being generated by the wet soil as it was warmed by the sun. The water was condensing right on the field, and as it rose, it formed mist – or what Gavin Pretor-Pinney called ‘the most earth-bound of clouds’. Warmer than the air around it, it was floating upwards and over the hedge. It was meterology in action. I sniffed the air. It smelled like a sauna.

This was pure joy. I’d seen clouds being born before, popping into existence over a cliff as I lay on a beach near Lisbon. They looked like cartoon ideas, literally, magically conjured up by changes in the warmth (or coolness) of the land (or sea) beneath. I watched them for ages. Pop! Another one. You could watch it grow from tiny grey dot to little fluffy cloud before it floated inland and dissipated again.

Most people don’t think watching clouds is that exciting. Me, on the other hand, I’ve walked into dustbins whilst distracted by a particularly nice lenticularis and it’s all because of the Cloud Appreciation Society. I read the books, got heavily into cloud watching and taught myself as much as I could about the sky. I’ve still got a lot to learn – it’s complicated up there – but I’ve got a basic knowledge and this is why it was so brilliant to see something in action that I’d only read about. I knew freshly ploughed soil released heat quicker than fields of grass or crop, but I’d never seen it happen. All you country people reading this will probably think I’m mental, and probably see it all the time. But I hadn’t, and it was great.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist. Please correct me if I’ve got this wrong)

Thanks to Martin Wright for letting us use the photo.

An Antidote To Indifference

The always-interesting folk at Caught By The River have just released their next edition of An Antidote To Indifference. I’ve written something for them on nightclubs that explains how an illegal WWII jazz club in occupied Paris invented the disco as we know it and there are gorgeous illustrations from Kavel Rafferty as well as words from Andrew Loog Oldham, Jon Savage and author of the excellent How Soon Is Now, Richard King.

Kook

I’m doing this talk at Rough Trade East in a couple of weeks on fanzines from pre-punk til the modern day. Andrew Weatherall, Bob Stanley, Geoff Travis and Andy Childs will be taking part, talking about the part they played in DIY world, whether it was ‘60s rock ‘zine Zig Zag or acid house irregular Boy’s Own.

Getting ready for a session like this requires some proper research, so I’ve been reading books (the Boy’s Own and Soul Underground anthologies amongst others) and I’ve been keeping my eye out for current examples of the fanzine imperative, something Caught By The River’s Robin Turner called “an ever-present and excitable urgency to pass on newly learnt information to as many people as possible.”

This is precisely what I found in a gorgeous sun-bleached surf fanzine called Kook, which I came across in The Ship, a delightfully grown-up men’s clothes shop-stroke-vintage skate ‘n’ surf treasure trove in Greenwich Market.

I haven’t got a ruler to hand but it looks like a slightly slim-line Berliner, filled with beautiful photography, illustration, neat design touches (the lines and dots, dominos and cross-hatching that appear subtly throughout). Even better, the words are wonderful. I particularly enjoyed Rui’s article on how surf-board shaping has become popular in Portugal, Cyrus Sutton’s article on creating surf experiences in the street with a 50ft piece of tarpaulin, and Rebecca Jane Olive’s piece on how the idea that surfing and freedom are linked isn’t always right: “When I choose to take some time away from surfing, it sits on my shoulder whispering in my ear, nagging me, asking questions and making demands… At times I think we’ve all been fooled. Surfing isn’t freedom, it’s a trap.”

Kook is entirely propelled by the fanzine impulse. On the back, in the box titled ‘Kook Needs You!’ (people who do fanzines always want to reach out to like-minded folk) they say it quite explicitly. “Kook is created and produced for the shared joy of creating and producing something different. It is not for profit. If you would like to submit content for Kook 3, please get in touch.”

I found another piece of DIY publishing recently. It’s not exactly a fanzine, more a cross between treatise and graphic novel, but hey, who’s checking? It was about the size of my hand (properly pocket-sized), bound in blue blotting paper and contained a cod-scientific argument against spending too much time on the internet. It was called Social Notworking and the final page contained a 2nd Class stamp and an exhortation to go and write to someone. I would post a picture, but I leant it to my friend and I can’t find anything about it online.

I’ve never been convinced by the argument that blogs have taken over from fanzines, especially as so many blogs are transparently CV-angled. There are blogs that are propelled by the fanzine imperative (Paul Byrne’s testpressing.org and Matthew Hamilton’s AOR Disco come to mind) but I’ve never bought into any idea that suggests that a new technology (blogs) will destroy an old one (print). Video didn’t kill cinema. On-line shopping didn’t kill physical retail. All that happens is a constant realigning of everything, all the time.

Caught By The River

Last night I went to Rough Trade East for the launch of Caught By The River’s new collaboration with the original DIY record store, where their books and reading choices are available in-store.

I’ve known the latter for millions of light years thanks to our shared machinations in music and I got involved this year, hosting a panel at their stage at Port Eliot and contributing to their Music Reader. I admire their new nature-shaped venture, especially as we share a serious love and admiration for the works of Roger Deakin and Chris Yates.

I first read Chris Yates while I was at University in Manchester. My friend Alex (or Pez as he was mostly known) was from Leeds and loved fishing. He loved fishing so much that he would steal out to Alexanda Park in Moss Side for a spot of moonlight fishing. Anyone who knows Manchester will recognise how unusual this is. For those who don’t, replace the phrase ‘Alexandra Park’ with your local inner-city no-go zone that has a pond in it.

Pez loved Chris Yates and even though I knew eff all about fishing, I could see that this book was something special and I borrowed it off him. I haven’t read it since but I distinctly remember the enthusiasm rising off the pages: his clear and palpable love for the various lakes and fishing spots felt exactly like my enthusiasm for Chicago House records.

But back to Caught By The River. The cast (founders Jeff Barrett, Robin Turner, Andrew Walsh and angling writer John Andrews) sat on stools that looked like things an elephant might stand on at a gothic circus. They were self-deprecating (“really, this is the launch of a bookshelf”), funny and thought-provoking, especially when John Andrews read from their most recent book ‘On Nature’. He read letters from a gentleman by the name of Dexter Petley who talked about growing up in Kent and attending a Rural Secondary Modern, a school where history and biology were replaced by lessons in mixing compost and chitting tubers.

Then they called for Bill Drummond, lurking at the back in denim with a partially opened rucksack slung over one shoulder. He stood in front of the stage, read a paragraph or two, questioned someone about whether or not they were texting, and told us the updated version of the story. It was about damsons. We heard about his first taste of the fruit, in a restaurant, a moment which marked the beginnings of his first and only obsession with fruit. He told us what he found out about damsons: that they came from Damascus and had gradually inched their way across the globe. That they’d been cultivated in the Vale Of Aylesbury, used for hat dye in England, and exported to Germany to dye the uniforms of the Luftwaffe.

Then to the rucksack, from which he pulled out two of the huge scores he uses for performances of The 17. The instructions were simple: go to Damascus, find a damson tree, climb it, hum a tune and then plant a cutting from a tree in Aylesbury, and to repeat the process in Aylesbury. Then the Arab Spring happened and travel to Syria became difficult for different reasons. Through slightly circuitous means (a meeting with the lady who translated his 17 scores into Arabic and who’d managed to get out of Syria during the crackdown) he was given two Damascene damsons, which he put in his pocket, and then accidentally put into the wash. You didn’t find out if he dyed the whole load Luftwaffe blue, but he did produce a plant pot – and no sapling. I’d have brought along a dram of my great uncle Maurice’s damson vodka if I’d known.

Rough Trade was a cradle for punk back in the 1970s. It’s now one of the finest record shops in the world (and I say this as someone who still loves an old school Soho shop like Black Market or Sounds Of The Universe) that comprises cafe, meeting place, bookshop, poetry corner, performance space, and of course, place of musical discovery. Caught By The River made me think that Rough Trade’s already acting as the cradle of something else… we just don’t know what it is yet.

I’m hosting a celebration of fanzine culture from the ’70s onwards at the next Caught By The River event on Weds October 12th with Geoff Travis, Andy Childs, Bob Stanley and Andrew Weatherall.

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