Caught by the River

The Rime of the Modern Mariner

14th April 2011

A Book by Nick Hayes.
Reviewed by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

I had the great good luck once to go walking in the Quantocks with Julien Temple. This is where Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Julien – as you’ll know if you’ve seen the mighty Oil City Confidential – is a kind of bubbling font of English culture. Every stone and twig seemed to spark some anecdote or reflection from him. Coleridge had barely ever been at sea. Those amazing visions of ice mast-high and slimy things with legs were culled from reading (A Voyage Around the World by Way of the Great South Sea by George Shelvocke), and from things he saw one these walks – ice crusted trees, massive mud flats, eerie sunsets. When the poem was first published it was criticised for its lack of a moral. Nowadays the moral screams at us. If you mess with nature (kill an albatross), it will turn on you. As Julien was telling me al this, we came over a little hillock and there below us, alien and ominously self-contained, was the Hinckley Point nuclear reactor.
Nick Hayes has what I can best call a cover version of Coleridge’s poem. He’s kept the melody and the scope of the original but changed the lyrics. Now we open with an office worker on a bench, discarding the packaging of his lunch time sandwich. He’s accosted by the Modern Mariner, a man who has been stranded in the North Pacific Gyre – a vast whirlpool of plastic waste. It’s a bold move, rewriting Coleridge. When I began to read, I was far from convincing. The poem still feels very alive to me. It doesn’t need to be “made relevant”. A few pages later I was hooked. Part of me just wanted to see how long he could keep it up. But more importantly Hayes seems really to have tapped into something new. It was the white eternity of the Antarctic that worked on Coleridge’s imagination. Hayes is fired up by a different eternity – the strange, ubiquitous eternity of plastic. Here’s a huge floating raft of bottle tops. There are jellyfish with plastic balls embedded in their bodies. There’s something really disturbing about the banal immortality of plastic. We’ve designed things to be disposable – water bottles, sandwich boxes – but fashioned them out of something indestructible. Stuff that should be swirling around in the great cycle of life, we’ve locked up for all time in bottle tops and razors. We’re haunted and choked by the archaeology of our own society.
This isn’t just a brilliant book. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful one. It’s lavishly put together and a pleasure to hold in your hand. I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s not a graphic novel. I suppose it’s a graphic epic poem. The text ripples in and out of a series of beautiful woodcuts, that recall Alasdair Gray sometimes and sometimes Hokusai. These are done over blue washes and the persistence of the blueness becomes emotional in itself – you’re reading words written on water.

The Rime of the Modern Mariner is now on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £15.00