Water and Sky – Voices from the Riverside
by Neil Sentance
Caught by the River / Little Toller Books – published today.
Reviewed by Malcolm Anderson
Neil Sentance’s collected essays, first published between 2010 and 2013 on the Caught by the River website have been pulled together beautifully in a partnership between Little Toller Books and Caught by the River.
Through seventy-six pages of expertly crafted prose Neil takes us by the hand on a poignant journey that meanders through a landscape of family lore and history. A landscape of familial memory shaped his grandparents farm amongst the Lincolnshire riverlands bordering the sluggish river Witham as it pours slowly southeastwards, running ‘the colour of old clay pipes’ towards the North Sea.
Without tending to the maudlin Neil shows us the hard work, humour and love that is so characteristic of country people who’s minds, hands and backs are as much shaped by the landscape around them as the fields and waterways are a product of their perpetual labour. Each essay covers a period in time, ranging from 1919 through to Neil’s final visit to the farm on the day of it’s sale in 1995, and each documents a changing countryside and a changing way of life.
Neil slowly breathes life into a land that exudes a sense of place but one that with changing times is losing something of itself, something ephemeral and timeless. The last two pages of the book send ripples of sadness through me as I read them, the sense of something forever gone, once vibrant hues faded to ‘the colour of cut hay’, yet I am strangely uplifted as I close the book as despite an undercurrent of loss and change we are acutely aware of the sense of joy and love that Neil feels about the area, and in particular the farm, as he says ‘belonging has a steadfast grip’.
His memories of his grandparents in particular are vivid and touchingly real; having spent much of my youth on a farm 250 miles to the southwest of Lincolnshire, close in fact to where Neil now lives, I can practically taste the atmosphere of the Sunday teas with the children arrayed at the small table, away from the grown ups. I can almost sense the solid and reassuring presence of his grandad, a lifetime of hard work ‘written on his hands, rough and cracked as a dry riverbed’.
I think for me the beauty of Neil’s book lies not in the differences between all of our lives, not in some strange celebration of alien landscapes, adventure and derring do, but in the similarities that exist across the lives of all of us who have grown up in Britain. Somewhere in all of our childhoods is a Charles Chalk, somewhere there’s a tale of running from a headmaster. Somewhere back in time we all have local nightclubs replete with their era’s own equivalent of Vince Eager. It’s a testament to Neil’s skill that by the end of the book you not only feel like you’ve spent lazy summer days on those low lying sleepy fields, but that you somehow know it as well as the boundaries of your own upbringing, whether that be tower blocks, abandoned factories, playgrounds, fields or rivers.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading and re-reading my copy, beautifully illustrated by Jonathan Gibbs and containing time faded photographs that further add to the understanding of time and place gifted by Neil’s words.
I too will dream now of ‘soil warmed by a quiet sun and cut through by the shining river.’
Malcolm Anderson regularly contributes the fantastic Drove Cottage column to Caught by the River.
Water and Sky is available in the Caught by the River shop priced £12