Caught by the River

Pleasures of……March

1st April 2010

Luke Jennings, author of the soon to be published, ‘Blood Knots’, tells us about the good stuff…

Almost everything promises a dud final day of the season at Walthamstow Reservoirs – a nagging wind, flat sunshine, greasy-feathered cormorants on patrol – but my 14 year-old son and I go anyway. We are, as usual, the only pikers, and though we’ve seen modest success on the Lower Maynard in the past, our wobble-baits and legered herrings are well and truly ignored. As the hours pass, teenage curiosity being what it is, the conversation takes strange turns. “Seriously, Dad, which celebrity would you least like to be trepanned by?”

All the carp boys blank too, and I’m beginning to lose heart with the place, especially when I remember the Coppermill Stream before the cormorants came and the litter piled up and Thames Water stopped down the flow. As we drive home, as if in apology for the empty day, a vivid orange sunset streaks over Finsbury Park.

Results are important with children; they don’t, as many of us did, grow up with the luxury of boredom. But there’s nothing like seeing them catch a good fish. A couple of summers ago, on the Thames at Twickenham, my son’s float slid away and there was that silver tea-tray flash you get with a big bream. It went five pounds. My daughter, then 8, caught her first fish on holiday in France. “Qu’est ce que c’est?” asked some guy passing by. “Un tench” she told him.

I came late to Fleet Foxes, but I love their shimmery sound, and the tooth-and-claw quality of songs like White Winter Hymnal and Your Protector. The band are from Seattle, but the nature-loving Englishman will feel a shared sensibility. Or something of the sort. On a more watery note I keep returning, years after she recorded it, to Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins singing Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren. Haunting, dreamy and gorgeous, and the fact that you can’t quite make out the words adds to the sense of mystery. Buckley rather improbably performed the original song on the final episode of the Monkees TV show in 1968, which I saw, aged 15, in flickering black and white, at my grandparents’ house. I’m assuming that everyone knows that Mike Nesmith’s mother invented Tipp-ex.

About the same time The Cake, an early girl group now winning iconic status, recorded their master-work You Can Have Him for a CBS show called the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. You have to admire the absolute blankness of the girl in green:

Her name was Jeannette Jacobs. Apparently she went on to marry Chris Wood, the sax-player from Traffic, and died in 1981. Moderately interestingly, The Cake sung backing vocals on the first Soft Machine album. A much weirder pleasure is the title track on Xiu Xiu’s Dear God, I Hate Myself. The production’s all over the place but Jamie Stewart’s singing works its way under your skin like a knife. Listen at your peril.

Bookwise – and this is the close season, after all – there are few experiences as downright peculiar as Robert W Chambers’s 1909 story-collection The King in Yellow. Set in 1920, in the wake of “a war with Germany, incident on that country’s seizure of the Samoan islands”, its first few stories concern a book which induces hallucinations and death in all who read it. The King in Yellow strongly influenced HP Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos, and is the perfect companion for a chilly Saturday afternoon – especially if the news is not good from Twickenham or the Stade de France.

I’ve also just finished The Devil’s Paintbrush, by Jake Arnott. Based on historical fact, it takes as its starting point a meeting between Aleister Crowley and Sir Hector Macdonald, a military hero of the British Empire. Reading it – and it’s brilliant – it struck me that it was one of a family of books which see a prefiguring of the darkest events of the twentieth century in fin-de-siècle occultism. Two other examples would be White Chapel, Scarlet Tracings by Iain Sinclair, and Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, both of which examine the psychic currents leading to the Jack the Ripper murders, which in their turn can be viewed as a curtain-raiser for the horrors which would be unleashed half a century later. Dark waters, but that’s what you encounter in a city as old as London.

To get away, on wings of song at least, I’ve been listening to the divine Astrud Gilberto singing Corcovado – Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars. Everyone knows The Girl from Ipanema, but for me this is the one which really transports you to those warm Brazilian nights, with the whispering palms, the velvet lapping of the ocean, and Stan Getz on sax. And, I’m pretty sure, pelicans instead of bloody cormorants.