Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Roy Wilkinson

Roy Wilkinson | 29th December 2009

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

What a world. Whether you want to get as solemn as a sandpiper or just crackers for your knackers, 2009 has certainly been the must-go destination over the last year.

Maybe the highlight of my own year was a bit of wildlife chat with Iggy Pop at his riverside home in Florida. As with most people, Iggy is my favourite performer of popular song and I was lucky enough to be sent to interview him for The Word magazine. His house backs onto a river where you can see the manatee, the remarkable marine mammal which some say is the origin of the mermaid myth. Iggy likes to watch passing manatees and also his garden birds. “I enjoy the wildlife,” he explained. “We get a lot of birds, but I can’t claim to be an ornithologist. I’m not sat there saying, ‘Oh, there’s an oriole, there’s a scarlet tanager.‘” No expert ornithologist maybe, but to have Iggy talking about the scarlet tanager – a forest-dwelling representative of the cardinal family – was strangely moving. Later, during a guided tour of his garden, the Ig stopped mid-sentence and, with utter lack of self-consciousness, had a piss on the lawn.

You can also get a nice mix of birds and carefree attitudes in Britain. The most out-of-the-way bird I saw this year was the brown shrike, a member of the ‘butcher bird’ gang that normally steers well clear of Britain – maybe spending the summer in Siberia and spending the winter in tropical Asia. Finding what I was told was the only sixth confirmed example in Britain was certainly no feat of wild investigation on my part. It’d been hanging around for two months and there were precise directions on the London Birders website – to Staines Moor, under the Heathrow flightpath. As I arrived the shrike was pointed out by the handful of birders already there. We watched this bandit-masked vagrant hopping around, pouncing on insects and chasing after a wren, perhaps hoping to do what gives these birds their butcher name – impaling prey on a thorn bush for later consumption. I walked back from the moor with a nice old fella, maybe 70 years old. He had an avuncular air, suggestive of Werther’s Originals. As he strolled along, talk turned to his National Service days with the British Army in Cyprus. “Yes,” he detailed in a matter-of-fact manner to equal Iggy’s al fresco urinary regime. “Great days. Got paid and screwed loads of women. Can’t say fairer than that.”

Nature is all around us, as made clear in one newspaper report on Maradona’s mating habits. As revealed by glamour model Natalia Rosas Muñiz: “He stole a kiss. It left me with a taste of onions, so I had to have a soft drink, but no matter. Then suddenly I heard a loud noise. I thought it was the chair creaking. But no. Diego had broken wind. He became more nervous, but never begged my pardon. It didn’t matter though. He is romantic, a deep thinker. Oh, what a night!” There were other great opportunities for wildlife observation, both indoors and out. Up on the Faroe Islands there was astonishing landscape, beer from the Orwellian-sounding State Alcohol Store and numerous great skuas – a bird that gave the title to a composition from my chums and siblings in the rock group British Sea Power. Sometimes rock music and birds do seem to fit together. I wrote a fun-sized newspaper article on the subject and, of course, this website is a particularly striking example of the rock/nature nexus. Co-founder Jeff Barrett’s professional life lies with cutting-edge pop. But where once Jeff seemed only connected with nature at its most urbanised – he worked with Happy Mondays, whose song Rats With Wings alludes to pigeon-murder – Caught By The River has endlessly and gracefully mixed musical and natural passions. It was certainly music that took me to the Faroes – to interview the charming Faroese singer Teitur. He later gave me regular updates on an albino raven that had been spotted on the islands. Imagine that!

And imagine being locked inside the GULAG, longing for just 15 minutes sat beneath the sun and a willow tree. Almost everyone in our nation can get to an amazing array of places with hardly any effort at all. I currently live in Devon where it’s just a short train ride to Dawlish Warren, a captivating spit of sand where a pre-fame Tommy Cooper sold ice creams and the birds flock in. A little auk, a spoonbill, maybe even a great spotted cuckoo could float by. And if you can’t get out of the city, the animals can still be seen. The Veolia Environment Photographer Of The Year 2009 is still on at London’s Natural History Museum. Get in there and look at the bewitching photo of a Finnish raven, which photographer Jarmo Manniheim took after feeding the creatures for a decade. Failing a trip to the museum, there are books and the kind of poetically specialist nature literature this website seems increasingly dedicated to documenting. On this front, I happened upon a copy of the 1986 British Waterfowl Association yearbook. Among the reports on “Large & bantam Laced Wyondottes” and how “every silkie or silkie cross that I know is as steady as a rock in either sitting or rearing”, there was an advert for a device known as the Electric Egg. For more on this “new concept in vermin control”, please see the adjacent reproduction of the ad. But, safe to say, if Iggy is pissing on your lawn or Diego is trying to grab your tits while farting like creaking fishing smack, this could be just the thing.