Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections – Tim Dee

Tim Dee | 23rd December 2012

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

January: At night in a sand dune in the Kalahari I wake because a spotted hyena is leaning against me through the skin of my tent. ‘Fuck off’ my host shouts from his (inaccessible) bed on top of his Land Cruiser next door. The hyena laughs.


February: On my local fields at Burwell Fen in Cambridgeshire there are eleven short-eared owls in view at once, stoking the winter grass with the fanning of their warm brown wings like bonfires carried aloft.

In his grandchildren’s playroom at the back of his house in Belfast I record Michael Longley reading some of his poems made from Homer’s Odyssey. ‘The Oar’ and ‘A Bed of Leaves’ make me weep as I listen to them later waiting for my plane home.

March: On the Devil’s Dyke in Cambridgeshire I anticipate a wheatear but see a swallow. The next day I see a wheatear and it doesn’t feel as good as it ought to.

In Exeter I record some of Alice Oswald’s Memorial, her ‘excavation’ of the Iliad, and feel my eyes giving way once again.

April: Steal my father’s gramophone and spend the month listening to Graham Parker and Jali Musa Jawara and the soundtrack of the original London cast recording of Hair plus other bright shafts of music trapped for years in vinyl. More tears.

Meet a hero: Alan Ritch who runs a website devoted to hay in art – a great refuge for those of us with grass longings. As I arrived at his sister’s house in Wiltshire, where he was staying, he was sweeping up some of the stuff from the path next to the front lawn.

May: At night a male spotted crake ‘sings’ at Wicken Fen: its whiplash snaps across the wet fields not quite as Belgian or kinky as a water rail’s squeals but still enough to make you pull your jacket tight around you in the absence of a wife or a mother or a policeman.

June: In Paris a goat in the Tuileries gardens kneeling on a lawn and nibbling at a flowerbed. Then, an hour later, at the entrance to the metro on the Champs Elysees a rabbit running between peoples’ feet. Whose fields? What Elysium?


July: Visit but don’t take part in the World Lumberjack Championships at Hayward, Wisconsin. The underhand chop. The standing chop. Hot saws. Fall for a log-runner with a Scandinavian name – her spiked shoes, cartoonish hurrying legs and Charleston hand-movements beguiling. The lumberjacks and lumberjills less so. Loons on the lake.

August: Write and write and write. Count more than one hundred snipe on the fen and watch them sucking things up from the mud to eat. An awful rained-out year for the swifts: they clear off around the 10th having never really stopped down amongst us. I am not certain any have bred in the village this summer.

September: At Tolstoy’s house at Yasnaya Polyana buy honey from a beekeeper who might have stepped from the pages of Anna Karenina. Also steal apples (not very good) from Tolstoy’s orchard. At the Battlefield at Borodino where Napoleon sort of beat the Russians two hundred years ago, although to no avail (see War and Peace), buy honey from a nun. Tolstoy’s bees are better.

At the Pussy Riot cathedral of Christ Saviour in the centre of Moscow am effectively prevented from recording an interview on the present state of affairs in Russia by near-continuous tintinnabulation of the cathedral bells. Who needs the secret police?

October: Lunch with two old friends: a former colleague at the BBC and Paul Bailey, the novelist, who we both used to work with. Paul generously treats us. Order teal having watched them the day before croaking on the snipe pool on the fen. A mistake. My ex-colleague is another hero. It was his programme presented by Paul on Pasolini that made me think radio might be a place to be when I heard it in 1982 or thereabouts spilling from a neighbour’s window into the back yard of the shabby house I was then living in. The hero, undiminished, is now working the petrol pumps at that miraculous country supermarket Harry Tuffins in Shropshire. More is to be made of this. I hope he will.


November: More writing. Meanwhile my wife captures cuckoo finches in a swamp in southern Zambia to breed them in captivity and thereby ascertain all sorts of secrets about their parasitic life among the cisticolas and prinias of the farm fields there. When she has done with the finches she leans softly but terminally on the breasts of other small birds to dispatch them for one sort of internal scrutiny or another. She is very good at this and I love her for it.


December: Remember Christopher Logue at a celebration in London of his life and work a year after he died. His War Music version of Homer is not a weepy but opens your eyes in other ways. His Red Bird – versions of Neruda poems spoken to a crisp and clipped jazz by the Tony Kinsey Quintet – lit up my childhood. My dad had the e.p. with a splendid hieratic bird on the cover and through much of the late 1970s I would insist on playing it to my punky friends before we went out to pogo. It worked as a kind of palette-cleansing provocation.


Tim Dee is a radio producer at the BBC. He is finishing a book, to be called Four Fields, which will be published in 2013 by Jonathan Cape.