Caught by the River

Letter From Arcadia

Dexter Petley | 21st July 2009

Joy Ride in a Bait Can


those were terrible days you speak of, your floats marooned in the glare of a desert sun over stockbridge. in normandie the air was like the insides of a dog van, the heat a manacle you dragged round day and night. it sat like a swarm, it blinded you, a photo-copier stuck on flash, the sun already burning through the bivvy like a flame thrower at 7am. the june at the end of the world. no barley mow with a beer wall, just a wheat field like a sea of flares, two pints of sweat on the wailing wall, the church bells tolling down the river.


i wouldn’t have been there but for the doggedness which barks on the end of an angler’s tether. the river seine. in a froggin renault megane, after the land rover popped another cog, came to a coffee-grinding standstill at high revolutions. i got to use the warning triangle, and the flourescent waistcoat, slapped into the nearest village in a midday swine flu heatwave without a sombrero, sweat like harissa, the road a black chewing gum sticking to my boots. the renault grease-monkey, monsieur pelletier, (which should mean pellet maker) is asleep under a citroen dingo, spitting grease pellets at flies, or would have been were it dead-engine gulch and not the village fleuri de bretoncelles. he was actually mopping his brow with a spanner- rag, in a mood to blow smoke rings all afternoon. after some pursuasion and how’s-your-mother talk, he fires up the breakdown wagon and off we rumble out past the cemetary where the fully loaded expedition vehicle is winched onto a stretcher and carried off.

all he could offer to get me fishing was a megane petrol dirtbag litter-bug’s car, with a 28 eure et loire number plate, which in english terms is like saying you’re from dagenham, you live in a bungalow, you dump empty cement sacks full of polystyrene into rivers and light barbeques at carp lakes and your dad was a 70s mooner with an 8-track in his capri pumping out bony-m’s greatest hits outside the youth club. these 28s scour neighbouring departments and spray sinister grafitti (tags in french) on roadsigns, like 28 en force which might be some sub-skinhead drive-to-die paint pot in the mouth slogan, but more likely the intellectual limit of a nerd’s neuron, force 28 being a tuned-up motor petrol heads put in things called ravagers. christ, i could go on if i were doing a french sociology doctorate, but i’m going carp fishing. i had to twist pelletier’s arm for the friggin courtesy megane in any case. the heat was on.

in the high noon sun-squeel of this donkey-drop village, i switched loads beside the lost car pound. the boat, bivvy, bait and buffet were squeezed into the megane. at this point i was set on going home, waiting until the sun iced over or the land rover was convalescent. until, that is, meganization changed the view from the windscreen. i usually drive in boots, whipping the land rover like a mule train; even in overdrive it saunters with hands in pockets at the red flag of 40mph. but this megane was on octane. boots hit gas, mainstreet gets a new sheet of michelin wallpaper, and we run the lights like a runaway horse; i’m here to bust my baby outa jail. i looked at the speedo going round like a spitfire prop. and man, this bolide had a cd player. i aint never had one of those. with the wrap round polaroids tweezed from my rucksack, pitstop chez moi for the elliot smith cds and we’re seineward, 0-80 in four beats, the dashboard thermometer reading 35 degrees.

speed is a silent illusion. in reality, my inner gendarme hands me a ticket for breaking my own highway code. it was only 80 kilometres per hour even in my head. in the land rover that’s like a lancaster in a nose dive, smoke off both starboard engines, the rear gunner screaming for his mum. in a megane with your arse 12 inches off the ground the wind will blow you that fast with the hand brake off. i was born in the bike lane; i am the tortoise, i am the egg-timer, a speed-limit freak. i’m the one who looks in the rear view and if i see another car i pull in and let it go to hell. with one exception, that renault 4 i had when you were over here last, the one with the big toaster handle gear stick on the dashboard and a peg to hang your beret, cars depress me and i hate them, and driving through an inferno in this megane was like sitting on a sun-bed, the long straight roads over dusty prairies winding you up with “go on, try my bitch”. i was never tempted. i kept it in 3rd, like not inhaling, all the way to the river, like these old boys you get stranded behind on french lanes, stuck in third they weave from side to side. not drunk or half-blind, they just think their peugeot 305 only has three gears. they learned to drive in those corrugated tin vans, the citroen HY, 3 gears and the wind buffeting its sides so they never drove in a straight line.

along the seine the carp were on perpetual spawning; in the shallow stretches, in the weedbeds and lily pads, round all the islands and backwater bays. pretty young commons, 3rd gear fish, mobbing for a thrash, amusing in their day but not what i was after. it took a whole day to find the deeper lengths where they avoid spawning, where the bigger fish share 30 foot holes with bucket mouth silures. i set up camp but fishing was fire-fighting, limbs boiled-in-the-bag, all drink consumed at a litre a swig. even the river was so hot it smelled like a nursing home dinner on the banks of mosquito coast. out on the boat, plumbing was like being adrift in an albatross poem. any hope of catching fish is poached eggs. life is toast. you only live for the evenings when, after a coating of citronella, you almost cackle like an arsonist at a bad fire as the sun sets. only dawn brings brief poltice until the day fires up again and your swim is a feverish hallucination of fragmented meganes:


that’s when you know it’s time to pack it in and go home to your fridge & garden.

the seasons must be marked, and angler’s neglect is most visible in the vegetable patch. we go dancing through the village streets, summer solstice, the fete de saint jean. the most shameful of folk, the parisian second-homers, bolt their doors and turn up their televisions as we brush past their black alfa romeos in the wake of our horse & cart, clog-tapping reels trembling their hanging baskets:


a final twilight step at the village crossroads before the procession splits back into happy families and we tramp the long hill up to the farm for rabbit stew lit by bonfire, where any minstrel so inclined can praise norman cider, tripe and black puddings with local percheron classics like la femme qui m’aura and the stream in june.


then july is harvest and first bottling after full moon. i leave the carp to the twenty-eighters and the barbeque bums. pick & pull for victory. in a way it’s like fishing, you never know what you’re going to get till it’s in the bucket or piled high in the boxes. at the final weigh-in the nettle peg scoops the pool.


bottling produce, the biggest blow you can strike against capitalist supermarkets and global farming and the shopping centre carpark-creaming megane-mothers. you can even re-use their damned jars. anything can be bottled; you waste nothing. you won’t land-fill even a pea-skin off your plate. very modest sized harvests become a whole winter’s store once in your cupboard, though it’s always best to keep it in the cellar or an anderson shelter if you have one. to bottle, just pick and clean your veg, put damaged veg aside for immediate consumption, blanche the impeccable in boiling water, sterilize your jars (i just leave them simmering for 5 minutess) and air dry them; fill the jars one to two inches from the top with the chosen produce, allowing for expansion, you don’t want anything touching the lids – peas, beans, broad beans, brocolli, whole small new potatoes, carrots, beetroot or any melange, such as carrots-peas-potatoes; then fill the jar with cold water a quarter inch from the top so the produce is well covered; seal the lid tight, put as many jars as you can fit standing on the bottom of a pressure cooker, fill pressure cooker with water one-third up the jar; cook under pressure for 20 minutes. (all measures & times given are just covering arse – after a few goes, instinct becomes imperial). no salt or sugar is necessary. the same method applies to fruit, though you can add a teaspoon of brown sugar to help form a sweet syrup to taste. just take care when handling the hot jars. they can be fragile and a slight knock can result in the bottom section falling off. your actual bottling jars, the traditional kilners, are of course superior if you have them, but i only use them in bigger sizes for saukraut and pickled onions and fruit. most veg i do in batchelor portions, pataks or branstans pickle jars, anything with a tight fitting lid and a good rubber seal inside.

there is a paced synchronicity in the gardening calendar which contrasts nicely with the whimsy of fishes, perverse and unreliable, duty-bound to outwit you. onions are patient, usually until you’re ready to bring them in once the garlic has dried. onion day is like a graduation ceremony, (not that i’ve ever seen one) a lot of pomp and funny hats and makes you feel more important than you are. the time to pull them is the day you just don’t feel like going fishing:


the boot sale season’s in bloom around the early potatoes. andrewsofarcadia would be amused to find that every stallholder at any village vide-grenier has a live-bait bucket on sale. they look like home-made mines for the resistence. grandma had to have her pike in the pot once, and some still do, but the live bait can has ceased to be an heirloom. that reminds me of the story of bob and the live-bait buckets. did i tell you this one that night we huddled under the wet mist beside the canal de nievre? and you’ll recall the chateau mist over the haunted pool.
in last november’s letter i sent you the photo i took after retracing our journey and finding the mist had lifted:


by then the poisson-chat had sacked it, the carp cornered behind the last barricade. the people rose up and now the poisson-chat is overthrown. i’m told the carp are in an underground bunker and will return once the last poisson-chat has been hunted from its mud-hole:


the other disappearing act of july is the caravan, gone under its annual mop of vine, shrub and climbing plant. somewhere, in the middle of it, i’m writing you this. you can just spot the tip of my chimney pipe which, now the megane days are over, is smoking of an evening while proptitious wind and rains sweep me off my feet:


i trust by now the tench have, by now, found you attentive on the bobbin.

bob’s return already on the birdtable