Caught by the River

Letter from Arcadia

15th November 2012

Note: Dexter Petley and other angler authors of this parish can be heard talking words on water on a programme of the same name on the BBC Radio 4 iPlayer. (originally braodcast this morning at 11am).

Under the Greenwood Tree


it’s been a while. now all roads lead to winter, i trust fat chestnuts splitten on your brazier as you rub the goose fat on december’s pike bungs and put mud flaps on the vanguard. like me, you must be sick of emptying the rain gauge twice a day. rain like a practical joke, a bucket balanced on a half closed door. here, life becomes a campaign; the deafening, the nightly barrage, a roar of nature’s ordnance, shells raining on the yurt roof, the six inch nails of cloudware, our climate as a broken pipe bomb.

by september, the yurt was a slime green outpost in a moat of liquid bog. now the daily hauling of my hand cart, supplies to the back line, is a gauntlet of stuck boots in a slough of despond. the clay has opened up. armies of salamanders in their bitter lemon camouflage sought high ground in the forest salients. even the ceps had nowhere left to go, all skittled out after one mass push.

so what has occupied that while? the triumph of life, no less. honing moments into poems, the sprung rhythms of gathering firewood, the iambic sowing of the beans, a villanelle tight-baiting in a gale, a sonnet of doing sod-all as the sun sets over a glass of aldi plonk.

fishing a new water was the clarion moment on my angler’s calendar. fifty acres of tree-lined pit, sick-heart river on its northern bounds, the devil’s own country, motorway rumble on the wind across a junk-pile scrub, thug-town up the lane where armed police loiter at LeClerc, tough-boys and their pitballs watching on from a corrale of tinted windows. like hornets at their civil war, one detaches for a Macdo and a quart of gin. just a side road past the factories, two minutes gunning down allotment valley to the lake. you learn to fish with it, but not live with it; the slap-your-bitch wall of rap they build around their mini-riot, the land-fill left behind, their parting shot a fusilade of bangers in that grand french style. worse still, there are baby seats in those beamers.

my favoured outpost in a cease-fire is two rods on the dam wall.

french public waters do mean public grief, minimised by fishing the more brutal weather, when only the lonely with labrador and wellies trudge the solemn grey. the gangstas stay indoors, take-away tatoo, flicking through the pit-bull weapons catalogue on a stolen iphone. the dam wall takes south westerlies and shunts rain in your face. an island at 80 yards, the lake tapering away out of bounds. behind me, thick hawthorn break and abandoned pools, fishing huts caved in or smashed by fallen boughs. coots fight, a swan runs aground. once the factoryman’s coup de pêche before this little town on the trunk road to paris became a towerblock overspill with motorway, and the pools, now fenced off, turned wild and dangerous and silted up.

i feel at home there as the willows flail, clouds swipe by and the tarpaulins clapping on the lorries a kilometre away sound like beating wings. i’ve spent good times on that dam wall. storms in the face, rain white-outs, invasion from outer bream. once the alarm went off in a half-hurricane. i made for the rod and everything went skyward; brolly, guyed down to my rucksack, converted to a microlight. my chair swinging in the trees as the rod hit test curve before i picked it up, all sundries scattered to the winds, water, mud. and once a gang of forties out looking for trouble, picking on me because i’m there, well you’ve got to be there for these:

but for now the rods lean against a damp cellar wall. the sun books winter quarters, nights so drawn and days so choked in mist they throttle my solar output and i bulk-buy candles against the solstice doldrums. the first ice portholes appear on the bucket and i think of the pike you left behind; lost property of the fens, gliding like a scene from damien under the ice. or your trawlerman’s thesaurus, brewing the thames in a tin mug, our plans to do letters live to the nation in the tea-leaves.

winter is gaffer, so there’s seasonal work, honest toil which befits the earth. the mushrooms are upon it, beacons in the dying light (i’m not a crack of dawner), chestnuts swelling in the ditches, firewood duty, best of all, warming you thrice, the sawdust falling lightly as snow into a bucket gathering for the compost toilet. the eleventh hour of the symetrical life is rebuilding the garden from scratch, raised beds to beat those darling floods of may which rotted this years everything and left my string bags empty. aesthetics is for aesthetes. french arcadia is now survival outpost. it might look like tin-tin on the moon, but being post-apocolyptic, it’s about grub, and power, and i’m sending this by telstar:

these recent times aren’t without lament, alas. another wailing on the shadowland, the post-script is written half-mast on a burning tricolore:

litter from arcadia

waters are closing down all over france, public venues where the mayors have had enough of carp anglers who think they’re at a stag night. the mayors are hypocrites too. they’re the new fly tippers on the block; old mayors with their fingers in their ears, squandering brussels millions on urbanizing villages for the parisian second-homers. their reward is a cul-de-sac named after them, and some petty political angel waving beside their death bed. in the meantime old habits die hard, penny-pinching on the waste disposal. the french way is to dump it in the woods or throw it in the water. sleeze-wits who fear ecology is for soixante-huitards. rubbish collection comes out the municipal budget, pay-by-weight. these clever mayors pay some plouc on a big tractor to dig a hole outside the village, always in a beauty spot beside a water-course, where any garbage-head can go shit on nature and scatter the waste of their toxic lives in the new killing fields of europe:

every village in my vicinity has one. every one of those villages is 15 minutes from an official dechetterie or refuse dump where everything is sorted into category and sent on for recycling or processing by landfill, compost or incineration. but something in a french head, that false voice of liberté and égalité, confuses littering and fly-tipping with freedom, the right of every citizen to exercise a right, any right, blindly and willfully. the unalienable rights of americans were, of course, constitutionally based on the french model. the coca-cola bottle thrown out of the car window here is a latter-day exchange for the gun laws.

even the worst instance has comic irony. this one i can tip myself upon french president françois hollande’s doorstep. in the woods where i live, where i hunt mushrooms, where i go for life support, for those moments of growing old and breathing with trees, is the ruin of a house:

and beside that house is abomination:

marie-louise thieulin was born on this spot on the 25th june 1830 into a farming family. she married jean-désiré patrice in 1853. their son, patrice victor, married marie-louise lauquin in 1891. their daughter, antoinette, married gustave hollande in 1919. their son georges is the father of the french president. when french farmers are upset, they deposit a cart load of manure on the steps of the prefecture in their departmental capital. had i a dust-cart and a dozen hearty souls, i’d go tip all this on the steps of the palace in the champs elysée. perhaps if hollande knew how the citizen behaves around his great-great grandmother’s birthplace, he might wonder where it’s leading. or will france, always ashamed of its past, turn a blind eye, as usual, to the present?

gawd-blimey trousers flappin’ on the birdtable


We began publishing the correspondence between Dexter Petley and John Andrews back in May 2007 making Letter From Arcadia the longest running feature on Caught by the River. It’s made for a fascinating archive and you can go back to the very beginning by clicking HERE.