Caught by the River

Holiday Postcard 1: Frank by the River.

25th August 2009

Three days of head-scouring rain have made the Annan into a churning, boiling brown vat. It looks like something from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The football pitch and the trim trail are under a couple of feet of agitated praline. We’re all sitting at the window waiting for a break in the clouds and I’m reading Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. Obviously Huck Finn is the greatest river book ever written but this is running it a close second. If you haven’t read it, you should take a look. The young Twain, hypnotised by the glamour of the river apprentices himself to a pilot named Bixby who can steer and land his massive paddle steamer through the treacherous, shifting sandbanks, changing channels, snags, reefs and wrecks, in the dead of night. Bixby is an amazing character – a showman who turned steering the boat into a piece of thrilling theatre and who gave the young Sam Clemens his illustrious pen name (Mark Twain is a measurement of the water’s depth). Training consists largely of admiring Bixby and learning the river by heart. Groups of trainee pilots would stand in the prow just “reading the “water” in silence for days on end. And it was some water. The Mississippi is so muddy, says Twain, that after drinking it for a while “a man could grow corn in his stomach.”

Frank (Cottrell Boyce)