Silt Road: The Story of a Lost River by Charles Rangeley-Wilson
A review by John Andrews
If you walk into a bookshop during the course of the next few weeks and months you will find Silt Road: The Story of a Lost River, the new work by Charles Rangeley-Wilson filed away in sections such as ‘Nature’ or ‘Natural History’. Yet this book, Rangeley-Wilson’s third after the anthology Somewhere Else (Yellow Jersey Press) and the travelogue Accidental Angler (BBC Books) should really be filed under memoir. In fact so groundbreaking is it that it almost defines a new genre altogether that of the memoir as detective fiction. For Silt Road is not a book centred solely around the post-millennial concept of ‘nature’ or the Victorian construct of ‘natural history’, it is a book about country and all the elements that issue from it: blood and fire, earth and water, lies and cruelty, magic and dreams. It traces these through a broken line of personal loss and in doing so uncovers murder upon murder. It is a book that recalls the terrifying descent into hell of the gumshoe Harry Angel in the 1986 film ‘Angel Heart’. Just as in ‘Angel Heart’ the words ‘I know who I am’ echo through the chapters of Silt Road and just as with ‘Angel Heart’ as you turn each page the terror slowly begins to mount.
‘It was when for one reason or another I’d lost my way that I began to spend days by a river, walking the streets it flowed beside and was lost beneath’.
So begins the tale of our narrator, a man disorientated wandering an ancient valley with a map and a list of cheap hotels, and one who takes the wrong turn at almost every juncture. How you beg him to turn back and drive home to his bed and his family. How you wish that he will not continue on with his doom laden journey but how you wish despite your best intentions that he will,
‘The 5th of February. I woke to reports of terrible weather rolling across the country from the south, of more snow and sleet and wondered briefly whether I should go at all’.
How Charles Rangeley-Wilson lived to tell the tale in this book is astonishing in itself for each chapter reads like the pages ripped from the diary of the last man on earth, a man gone mad through loneliness and desperation. A man who knows by folk memory the places he marks through photographs as triggers for a paradise lost and who is now trapped in its replacement, a theme park county, not distinct from any other within a petrol tank’s distance of London, where the residents are intent only on home improvement and whose only ecstasy, holy or otherwise comes from the distractions of 4 o’clock strip shows, the purchase of plastic furniture and the anaethaetism of imported beer and over the counter pharmaceuticals. How else to believe the story of the haunted Grange and its ghosts visible nightly from Room 42 of The Abbey Lodge Hotel on Priory Road or to recognise the sound of knives being sharpened in Cut-Throat Wood, or to distill the fact that when the sun sets in High Wycombe the ducks leave what is left of the River Wye and follow its buried course through the streets stopping the traffic and making council officials twitch in their drip-dry clothing.
It is once the sun has set and night has come that ‘The Silt Road’ and all those who have fallen at its wayside come alive and stalk the narrator as he tries to sleep fitfully in the air conditioned rooms of open-coffin motels. Yes, night is when Billy No-Toes the most skilled of the ‘Bodgers’, comes out of the beech with a blade in his hand and his skin still fizzing from his days as a ‘stain-boy’. His lips are dry and he is looking for revenge for the hanging of his brothers, the rioting miller Thomas Blizzard and the publican John Sarney, who both swung by the neck from gallows built by the hands of men who in calmer times churned out 4,500 chairs a day from the woods and factories of the town on the Wye. It is at night that after a while even you can hear the chanting of Sir Francis Dashwood and the self styled ‘Monks of Medmenham’, known more widely as the Hell-Fire Club (motto: Fay Ce Que Voudras: Do As You Will) who having arrived by a boat guided along the Wye by the toll of a single bell perform a Black Mass before casting their souls aside in a wild orgy. It is at dusk before that night falls that a vast trout is witnessed swimming in the waters of West Wycombe Park, the Dashwood seat, a fish so vast and so beautifully marked that to see it is to die.
And as the journey continues so the cast of the forgotten and the damned gather, crazed Victorian visionaries, ragged bands of mill workers, frantic health inspectors on the down train from London, a pair of bicycling between-the-wars brothers dressed in tweed and racing shorts with a need to preserve, a little girl crushed beneath the wheels of a passing lorry, a grey spawn of repressed town planners, lone blind bible sellers on the edge of town and gulls that fall dead from the sky onto the heads of passers-by. All along the narrator is befriended by these golems whilst becoming increasingly haunted by the sound of ‘The Loudest Gong’,
‘It’s three forty-five. I should go in. They may close at four. I’d like to be there in the sun. But I’d like also to be there at five-thirty, when the sun will have almost set. That will be a lonely hour, I think’.
They journey with him and with you as the reader in a steamer bound for Tasmania, Van Diemens Land, the first of many ghost ship voyages where you not just he will find yourself entombed with the several thousand survivors of this valley’s waters in two rooms,
‘one within the other, both lined with lead, the space between packed with charcoal, a 200-gallon water tank linked by a pipe to the ice house below it; the pipe wrapped twice around the ice.’
Would you have survived in a New World? Can you even be confident you will survive in this one, in your towns where the rivers have been buried alive and with them all those who lived and worked along their course. Perhaps you might give yourself a chance as you wander round shopping centres like the one in Wycombe, named “Eden” by a desktop developer but I give you as much chance as I give Charles Rangeley-Wilson at staying sane for his remaining days having chanced upon the story of a mass murder whose account he has written so eloquently and grippingly only for the world to file it under ‘Nature’, when it sits more urgently beside Carson McCullers in Fiction or next to Rachel Lichtenstein in Memoir. For you will be moved and altered by what you have read in this groundbreaking book and especially by the meaning behind the one of its lines that haunts everyone who has so far read it,
‘the weight of what isn’t there any more, it could sink a fucking ship’.
Silt Road is the Caught by the River Book of the Month for April. Buy it here.