By Bill Drummond.
By the time this is posted on Caught by the River, I hope to have driven across Europe in my white Ford Transit van to Belgrade in Serbia.
Belgrade is to be the second of the twelve cities in twelve years that I am to be working in around the world between 2014 and 2025.
This working in cities over these twelve years is my rather elongated world tour that goes under the title of The 25 Paintings.
Although there are 25 paintings these only exist to proclaim what I am doing in each of these cities. They have no particular aesthetic or artistic worth in themselves. These paintings are all the same size and use only the three primary colours – red, blue and yellow plus black and white. But more importantly the subject matter of the paintings is words and these words act as adverts, signposts and notices for what I am really doing. And what I am really doing in these cities is the real work – be it building beds, baking cakes, cleaning windows, banging my drum, sweeping the streets, blowing my horn or working as a shoe shine boy. All of which I do to the best of my ability.
But there is a Johnny Come Lately to this list of welcome chores to be ticked off in each city over the twelve years – it is neither a chore or in anyway being done for the good of mankind in general or my soul in particular. It is to do with holding a rod with a line and a hook and a worm in the hope that a fish might be foolish enough to take the bait.
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At the age of eight. I took my father’s fishing rod from the shed. He had only ever used twice, it was a whim of his that never stuck. I then dug up some worms from the garden, put them in a jam jar. Then I walked the two miles from our house to the Penkiln Burn – a small river at the other side of our small town. There on the bank amongst the bluebells and primroses I took a worm from the jar, put it on the hook and cast my line for the very first time. And I waited. And while I waited I gazed into the clear water of the Penkiln Burn.
And what I saw in the water in front of me was more vivid than my dreams, or any story that i had ever heard. It gripped stronger than what I saw at the picture house it spoke louder than any fantasy I had ever had. What I could see was a Trout, a Brown Trout, almost a foot long. The speckles on it’s back seemingly dancing in the shaft of sunlight.
I knew then in an instant that the other world existed, and it was all there going on under the surface of the water just in front of me. It was not only this Trout that was then approaching and then ignoring the still wriggling worm on my hook – no it was the way the water swayed the weeds; it was the way that the stones on the bottom seemed to move of their own accord; it was the way the Eel would appear from under a rock and make his way across the current and then seem to disappear under another rock; it was the way the shoal of minnows would attack my worm, and he would wriggle in defense. And then there was that grey torpedo like form that must have been at least three feet long making her way, silently and steadfastly upstream – the mighty salmon of legend.
Okay maybe I am over telling the story here, maybe I did not witness all of this in my first gaze, but what ever I witnessed after casting my line for the very first time, made sure I was well and truly caught by the river.
But none of what I was experiencing through the sense of sight readied me for the first proper bite and actually having a fish on the line. After waiting for about 20-something minutes I got this first proper bite. I had him on the line, he was hooked and I felt the tug. And it was with that first tug I knew I was in direct contact with this other world.
Of course the eight year old me would not have interpreted it as that, I just knew this was the most exciting thing that I had ever experienced in my eight years on this earth. With decades of hindsight and a weakness for over using the written word, I would state this was the moment that the universe opened up to me. That feel of a fish on the line is like no other, even if you do not land it. In fact, if it gets away, it somehow makes it even more vital. It is the life force. It is God’s finger touching Adam’s.
In realty if was a six-inch baby Trout. I reeled it in, held it in my left hand, used my right hand to take the hook from its mouth, wondered at its beauty and life and everything. And then took a stone from the bank and smashed its head in.
By the end of my morning’s fishing I had four other similar sized fish. All of them equally as beautiful and all equally with their heads smashed in. I lined them up on the large rock beside where I was sitting. If it was the modern age, I would have taken out my phone and photographed them and posted them, but it was 1961, there was only memory and all its frailties to hold and frame it for eternity.
When my worms ran out, I put the five fish in my pocket and headed for home. My mother let me gut them and fry them in the pan. They tasted like no other fish had tasted before. The memory of their taste is still the benchmark for all subsequent fish I have ever eaten.
Every day that I could for the next three years I was there at that spot with my rod and line, on the banks of the Penkiln Burn.
In May 1964 the Drummond family moved several hundred miles south to the English east midlands. There I learnt to catch those other fish, those course fish, those Roach, Rudd, Perch, Pike, Dace, Chub and Bream but not Carp. Most of these new fish tasted disgusting. That said the Perch was almost as good as the Brown Trout, and there was always the Eel – never pass on the opportunity of eating freshly caught and then fried Eel. The others might taste foul but each of these fish have their own beauty and when on the line they never fail to connect me with that other world.
By the time I was turning 16 the guitar was replacing the fishing rod as my tool of choice to connect with something bigger than oneself. And music was drawing me away from the river.
But over the decades the river has never lost its hold. Wherever I have ended up having to go in the world I have always been drawn to find water so that I can stare into it to see what I can see. And any time there is someone fishing, I have to go and stand by them just to watch and if the language barriers are not to high, I will attempt to find out what they are fishing for or what they have caught.
For those that have never fished, I guess they just see these sad looking loners wanting to escape family life or the drudgery of their work by sitting by a stretch of water wasting their time in the most boring way possible. Well if you are one of those people judging the person holding the rod, you are wrong. That person holding the rod is doing it because they know that at any moment they could be in direct contact with the life force that runs through the universe.
Over what is almost five decades since fishing was the main focus of my life, I have only occasionally taken my rod and reel and headed for the river. But when I do the river never fails me. The other world is still there.
It was earlier this year that this continual urge, pushed its way into one of the activities that I would embrace during my twelve-year world tour. I drove up the M1 and M6 from London to Spaghetti Junction, Birmingham, in my white Ford Transit van armed with rod, reel, line, hook and tin of maggots. As you may or may not know, Spaghetti Junction is many things, included in the list are it being a motorway interchange; a temple of brutalist architecture; Tenzing Scott Brown’s Central Gallery – the gallery that represents me; the entrance to the underworld and most importantly where each year I start the next leg of The 25 Paintings world tour from.
Underneath Spaghetti Junction runs an arm of the Grand Union Canal. I bated the hook and cast the line. This was being done more symbolically than in the hope that I would actually catch anything in this dank, dark and dead looking water. I was also doing it so my colleague Tracey Moberly could photograph the event, so that it would mark it as the beginning of something. Thus in a sense it was little more than a pose for the camera. My line was in the water for little longer than it took Tracey to get her shot. But it was long enough for me to hook a fish, even if it was only a three-inch Roach. One whose head was not smashed, whose body was not gutted, whose flesh was not cooked and eaten, no she was returned to the water to swim another day.
Between now and 2025 I plan to fish in the waters of each of the twelve cities around the world. And if I catch anything, whatever it is, I will kill it, gut it and cook it on a small fire right there on the bank.
As I said in the opening paragraph to this piece, I hope to be in Belgrade, Serbia in the next few days. Between now and then there are a few borders for the white Ford Transit to cross, but along with The 25 Paintings and all the other stuff that I need, that is packed in the back, will be my rod and reel. This time next week, I hope I will have fished in the mighty Danube. This time next year it will have been the Hooghly in Kolkata.
In the words of Ricardo Da Force (RIP)
New style, meanwhile, always on a mission while
Fishing in the rivers of life
Fishing in the rivers of life – Hey
Fishing in the rivers of life – Hey
Fishing in the rivers
Fishing in the rivers
Fishing in the rivers of life – Hey