Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections – Ian Preece

Ian Preece | 22nd December 2014

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings where Caught by the River’s ever-reliable contributors and friends old and new take a look back on the events that have shaped the past twelve months. Today it’s the turn of Ian Preece:


I can’t remember when I started making the fox films. Mucking around with some new phone, probably – but I absolutely love it when they come up to the kitchen window and place their paws on the window sill, checking out if there’s anything appealing on the other side of the glass. (Sadly not – a dying basil plant and just me with my new camera.) They’re a mangy family, often with grey patches on their hides. It makes me stupidly happy to see them lounging in the sun, chilling out, looking so peaceful, just dozing (but always alert). We don’t have a lawn, as such, just some wild grass and scrubland. Next door’s garden, where their lair is, is normally a six-foot-high dense thicket, full of interlocking brambles and weeds, overgrown bushes, no daylight and all kinds of shit – a submerged teepee, a blue vegetable rack from Tesco’s, a toy ironing board (but no kids). Every few years the housing-authority gardeners come round with a flamethrower, but I don’t mind it so much (especially now I no longer have to retrieve footballs from over there). But it gives me great pleasure when the foxes mosey on down the back wall and hop over to the other side of ours, to the neatly primped, strangely green lawn and barbecue arrangement. I don’t think that much fouling or eating of the primroses goes on, though, because I know they douse it all in chemicals.

We live in a fairly narrow, east London Victorian terrace. Narrow, but the gardens are long, so where they back on to one other, the builders, back in the 1870s, sensibly left plenty of room for the fruit trees. I couldn’t believe it when we first moved in – it was practically an orchard. Three or four apple and pear trees just in our stretch; a fantastic cherry tree hanging over right by our kitchen window (next door let us fight it out with the birds every June); a colossal apricot tree at the end of our garden. Such was the harvest some summers we’d have neighbours from down the road, no doubt having looked out of their back windows, wondering if they could relieve us of our burden. The end of July was a sort of apricot frenzy. You’d catch the foxes and squirrels even gnawing on the stones.

Then, just like that, the apricot tree died. About a year later the fence blew into the side kitchen window one night, and the guy who brought the new fence cut the tree down. I kind of wanted to keep it, but I came home from work one evening . . . and that was that – it’d gone.

Working from home I got a nice window put in the loft, and I can sit at my desk and stare out at the trees, watch the magpies and jays, rooftops and rainbows, and have a good look at what’s going on in people’s gardens – a large plywood shed going up here; a sort of brick hut with a chimney that has to be in flagrant defiance of planning laws over there. A guy up the road plays trombone and sax, and while I can’t see him, on quiet afternoons you can sometimes hear a Mingus blowout. I love it. If I had some binoculars, I could see pretty much all the way down the road.

Well, I used to be able to. I can barely see next door’s bio-technically enhanced lawn now – since they erected their loft extension this summer, my view is of some intricately cut shale slate, and a white painted fascia that looks at a funny angle to me. A while back there used to be a huge poplar tree (or at least, checking in my 1972 Observer Book of Trees, I think that’s what it was). It was actually on the street but, sitting in the back garden, you could see it towering over the roof-line, nodding in the sun. It was so big, you just had to laugh. Unless you lived up the road, where they reckoned the roots were cracking the foundations of several houses, even, potentially, the walls. So that was that – one day there was just a stump left splintering the pavement, and a mound of sawdust.

It’s been a terrible year – dealing with loss, health scares, and real health scares that turn into something worse. As the kids turn 16 at Christmas, there’s been the end of childhood as well, which has been hard. But I realise every day, you just have to hang on to the free, beautiful things: Don Cherry live in Nantes 7”, Peter Austin and the Freedom Singers, Grouper, clear vinyl from new favourite label Gnome Life, in Big Sur – the Range of Light Wilderness, and their Robbie Basho reissues; the wise counsel of Robert Wyatt (in his biography), Brian Case (for next year); Two Days, One Night; my daughter playing left-back for Millwall; my son’s photos, and his skateboarding – not that we get to go to a skatepark any more, of course, but in an effort to break the cycle of teenage vice I persuaded him to come along to see Paul Morley talk about Nabokov, which was an edifying and inspiring hour or so. On the way out, we noticed King’s College have plastered their front on the Strand with slightly lurid photos of their famous alumni: the Duke of Wellington, Rory Bremner, John Keats, the guy from Bloc Party, an Olympic rower, and plenty of pioneering scientists. My other half went there, she’s a teacher in a primary school near Green Street, Upton Park now, dealing with all the kinds of stuff the little ones have to deal with every day. I can’t understand why she isn’t up there – and she’s far better looking than Rory Bremner.

Ian Preece on Caught by the River.