Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Jon Berry

27th December 2012


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

The river has been high for most of the year, swelled by rains that seem to have been with us forever, but the last week has been more settled. Old Father is fining down, revealing a scoured bed, new life in its riffles and the detritus left by summer floods. The materials with which we clutter our lives so unnecessarily hang from every bush and reed. Cans, bottles, shopping trolleys, paper of every variety and the ubiquitous Tescos carrier bags. Strange fruit.

The river has carried us along too. Last month we found ourselves surrounded once more by packing crates, bundled rods and old, cased guitars, and friends have added another quiet spot next to our names in their address books. Neither of us enjoys the trauma of moving house but sometimes the flow is strong and it picks us up and deposits us where it chooses. Rivers do that.

I knew this village ten years ago. It is on the banks of the Upper Thames and, in the last fifty years, the gravel beneath its fields has been pillaged for motorways. A hundred lakes have appeared and those that have been left to flourish have done just that. It is a fishy place, which is why I knew of it, and a beautiful one in which to settle, far enough away from the main current.

We found this cottage at the right time, when change was needed. In July, after twenty years in the classroom, I found myself out of work. Redundancy was unheard of when I started teaching but the public sector is no safer than the private these days and an unblemished career counts for little when the bean counters arrive. It hurt – more than I ever thought it would – and so I did the only things that made sense. I went to Port Eliot and misbehaved, and then I went fishing.

When September came I sat in my study on a bleak Monday morning and tried to begin my fourth book. There were several false starts – to make coffee, to feed the animals, to pace the floor and wonder why I’d agreed to write a book about carp. A week later, the screen was still blank.


I had spent much of the summer under canvas at a secret pool, trying – with occasional success – to catch big, ancient fish. It had been tremendous fun but the stories that emerged had been no different to those that had been told so often by others. The niche world of carp literature is already over-crowded and I soon found that I had nothing to add to it. I closed my laptop and gave up.

New floods arrived in November, their undertow taking us to the river’s source. I drove us there in a 7 tonne Luton, skimming over roads that ran brown with rain washed off the fields. The hundred lakes had burst their banks and it was hard to see where they ended and the river began. We hunkered down and lit a fire, and when Monday came I drove to a new school and started the job I’d always wanted.

It took weeks for the landscape to find its equilibrium. The aquifers were full, the fields slow to assimilate the downpours, but by the beginning of a new month the lakes and river were clear and the roads dry. I wandered downstream with a rod and soon found a place where a new story could begin. I’m going to travel the river in the New Year, by foot and bicycle and train, and if I catch little or find no stories of my own, it won’t matter. The Thames is a hundred miles of molecules and history and has plenty of stories of its own. The publishers, none too pleased that a carp book won’t be appearing any time soon, have agreed with some reluctance to this new idea. ‘Just fuck off and write it’, they said. They too have gone where the river decreed.