Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Roy Wilkinson

Roy Wilkinson | 9th January 2009

In which, as the year comes to it’s end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments;

The best bits of 2008 included hearing Denis Norden talking about ‘witzelsucht’ on the radio. As this great showbusiness greybeard explained, witzelsucht is one of those German words that encompasses whole expanses of thought and endeavour – in this case an uncontrollable tendency to construct puns. Denis recalled an episode during Frank Muir’s National Service where Frank was driving an Army lorry which then broke down. He phoned HQ, helplessly riven with witzelsucht: “Hello, I’m awfully sorry, but my Commer has come to a full stop.” According to Denis, Frank was put on a charge. Could it be true? Let’s hope so.

Witzelsucht is surely an example of our natural inclination to seize at the subtle, fleeting delights in the world around us – an inclination this website embraces in style. At a time when we all seem in danger of sending the whole thing to pot, you have to start somewhere. If you can find something small to love, perhaps the big things will follow. Round here, 2008 seemed full with workaday wonder, with small things full of fathomless joy. Please read the below by means of illustration.

1. Standing on a marshside levee in north Norfolk while a bittern flies straight overhead at an altitude of 10 feet. The East Bank on the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Cley is an age-old birdwatching glory spot. As a mere birdwatching dilettante, I’m continually amazed by the levels of expertise you find in the people patrolling places like this. Another time at Cley I saw a heron swallow a moorhen whole. A couple of glugs and the bird was halfway down the heron’s throat, its silhouette jutting out, comically evident under the skin. Here was beauty and death side by side. Is this what Coleridge meant when he said “Nature is the devil in a fancy waistcoat”?

2. Three rows from the front at Hammersmith Apollo as Neil Young plays Winterlong and Hank To Hendrix.

3. Rhenigidale and Bernerary – places to stay run by the Gatliff Hebridean Hostels Trust on the Isle Of Harris. These hostels are old crofts sat in spellbinding territory between high heather and the sea, – reached across The Minch and through delicate light over Loch Seaforth. No advance booking, which seems to attract a game clientele. At Berneray we got to sit and hear long, unsolicited reminiscence from senior-citizen cyclist Jim. At the age of 14, he biked alone from Southend to Stonehenge. On arrival at Newbury Youth Hostel he found it closed. Not to worry. Kindly local bobbies put up in the cells for the night.

4. Tan Hill on the Yorkshire Dales. Familiar from the TV ads for Everest double grazing, this is the most elevated pub in England – 1732 feet above sea level. It’s treasurable place, where a bewitchingly dark interior made of slate, open fires and Yorkshire pudding looks out onto the moorland. In August the indie-rock group British Sea Power made it the setting for their mini-festival Sing Ye From The Hillsides! Here was a glorious blend of rock music and the high rocks by the Pennine Way. In the evening, we had amplified rock music, fireworks and the group’s own-brand beer. In the morning, the trilling ‘kau, kau, kau-ka–ka-kakarrrrr’ of red grouse, some outdoor pub games and a display of falconry. There was also specialist local advice on combating a hangover. On the morning festival guided walk, the young group leader stops to boil up some willow leaves. The brew included salicylic acid, a relative of aspirin. It seems to do the trick.

5. The River Wandle. The aspect of the dozy sod is always with us. I’ve lived in south London for ten years but was only vaguely aware of Thames tributary the Wandle. Some reporting work for Caught By The River allowed me to address this lack. Thanks to the work of The Wandle Trust, this river is a real-life minor miracle – a chalk stream burbling through the warehouses and estates of Croydon, Merton and Wandsworth. The upper stretches are a delight – masses of dace, barbel and chub holding their position alongside fronds of water crowfoot. Such is the water’s purity that brown trout are also found. Fishing is available with The Wandle Piscators:

6. A train over the Forth rail bridge. The engineering is amazing, the the beauty of the coastline reflected in the placenames that line the route – Kinghorn, Burntisland, Star Of Markinch.

7. A pub in west London. Nick Sanderson wasn’t a singer, but his mob-oratory provided amplified words for the glam-rock futurists of Earl Brutus – a band who surveyed the contemporary indie-rock milieu with the energy and fatalism of a Soviet Five Year Plan. Nick died in June 2008 and friends, family and associates gathered to mark his memory. Nick would have liked the Forth rail bridge, but he liked many things – his enthusiasm took in British birds, Manchester United and our nation’s railways. Before his death Nick worked as train driver – meaning he fulfilled two disparate boyish dreams, train driver and rock frontman. As with all the best lives, Nick’s passing brought as much happiness as sadness. And also the reinvigorated desire to snatch at life’s speeding mail train with a tenth of his vigour.

Nick would also have enjoyed the recent exploits of Romania’s Fotbal Club CFR 1907 Cluj. Six years ago they were the railway workers’ team, playing in Romania’s Divizia C. Their home city of Cluj-Napoca had produced much more famed offspring – Monica and Gabriela Irimia of The Cheeky Girls. But in 2008, CFR Cluj beat imperious Roma in the UEFA Champions League – playing away from home in the Italian capital. In the spirit of Nick Sanderson, the brown trout and CFR Cluj, let us set forth. Sometimes it seems anything is possible.