Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections – John Andrews

John Andrews | 31st 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 John Andrews:


2014 the year that began under the blade of the surgeon’s knife in an operating room twelve floors up on the Euston Road. A spaceship for the sick. Two months of convalescence followed nursed with stoicism by the Empress as she made dresses for Rodelinda and I read all the books I had started and not finished the year before. A stack taller than the door. The hours marked by Radio 4 Extra’s secret histories and simple meals of comfort food. Scrambled Eggs and Shepherds Pie. A confinement broken by a February wedding on the Kings Road and a Sunny Afternoon on the first evening of March, a significant bottle of Pale Ale opened in an empty bar to toast both. Sewn together, full of pills and up the A10 the last day of the season may as well have been the first so few had been those like it on the bank. It was spent in the linocut company of Bible John Richardson and his mending shoal of pike and perch.

The all-clear sounded under the blossom in April and after that we set sail on an ocean of tea drunk by the gallon from service station cups, each gulp a celebration. Stalling out in the new sun amid the good and staunch company of the Spitalfields Irregulars, lifesavers one and all; a Car Boot Sale held in the garden of a Stately Home where the contents of the van fed a Bank Holiday crowd of five thousand. A tenth anniversary fair in the town of Redditch and a flyer for the Eton Church Sale Fund of 1908 found on the wind. Rainbows over Kempton, dace from punts at Sunbury and pints in The Magpie, cups of Onfa Congo Coffee brewed on tail gate stoves, a Wonderland built below ground in Beth Steel’s account of the death of England in 1984. ‘Bobbo’ a coal face giant come to life in a Mansfield Town home shirt made by the Empress one night at 1am as I fell asleep in front of Japan v Cote d’Ivoire. ‘Snap Time’; swimming in Byron’s Grotto twenty years on and lighting candles in the church of San Lorenzo high above Porto Venere. The distant white clouds over Massa and Carrara, winning first place in the Tea Cosy Competition at Port Eliot to the strains of Parker and the Arcadia 78rpm Orchestra; Chris Watson making a tent full cry with his Sheffield song, flyposters pasted up down lost alleys in the district of Cripplegate telling of arrangements for Strangers and Visitors to London, the death of the last surviving Thames Professional: Roger Wyndham Barnes and a wake for him by a forded stream. Reading aloud alongside Neil Sentance the author of Water and Sky – the book of the year in anyone’s language – and watching Will Burns the poet from punch up and fruitcake country take the stage in a house built by Auden and Eliot. Over the sea to Branchage and a basket of bass from a Garden of Eden before the strange descent of a state of grace. Those holy hours before the firing squad line up and take aim. The news delivered via a broken telephone call on the beach at St Ouen’s. Tears and tea that tasted like metal at an old cafe. The beginning of the never ending goodbye, the death of our seventeen-year old St. Polycarp the 1st. They say it’s worse when you lose an animal and in a way they are not wrong. There is no wider sense of shock in which to take shelter. It is deeply personal. The clocks do not stop. No one silences the pianos.

The days nights and weeks empty that followed, catching sudden glimpses in the flat, the all too familiar feeling of grief like the grip of cold hands around the throat interrupting 5am conversations with the recently dead. Mourning clothes worn by The Fowey, a sea trout taken from Dynamite Pool whose flanks of silver flashed like a morse code message from the other side, pies and pints in The Pineapple; The Queens Head and The Carps, new buds bought in the rain from Lanhydrock, another Sunny Afternoon triumphant up West in October and a catalogue found from a Bonhams sale in 1955, the discovery of a detective’s notebooks from 1914 and a note telling us he died as a result of injuries effected whilst arresting a burglar some years before; At Redditch again – the two minutes silence of five hundred rods echoing back over the century past; tying flies in the upstairs room of a Clerkenwell pub as outside the bells of St. James struck eight nine and ten. A memorial service for Aunt Sharlie the last of the Baker girls held in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court and pints of solace with boat crews of cousins by the river. Familiar hymns sung through veils of salt. The need for ancient winter music and chants. The small kindnesses of neighbours and dogs asleep on the rug. Poignant moments and sacred times. 2014 a year of life and a year of death – a year of stark reflections under the cloak of the longest shadow of them all.

John Andrews on Caught by the River