Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings where Caught by the River’s contributors and friends take a look back on the events that have shaped the past twelve months. Today it’s the turn of Luke Turner.
Late 2015 and a walk despite the weather forecast, across the Dengie Peninsula in Essex towards the Chapel Of Peter-On-The-Wall. One of the oldest buildings in England, the stone and red tile rectangular structure dates from the seventh century and is in part constructed from the ruins of a Roman Fort. Progress towards it was slow beneath wind turbines that churned a violent drizzle. Near Southminster station the supermarket tills had passive-aggressive signs proclaiming non-adherence to the new law on charging for plastic bags. The way was marked with dead rabbits, eyes and backsides pecked out, prompting foul-humoured talk of a marauding “Dengie bunny wronger”. In the pubs people liked to inform us that they’d been watching our progress. They were not friendly. The sea wall – green grass on the landward side, brown towards the water – was cold and wet, the visibility poor and the air so full of moisture that the knees of our trousers started exuding a white foam. A Persil lactation on a damp pilgrimage.
In January 2015 I wrote from a similar landscape on the New Year just past for Caught by the River, hoping that time might become the tides that scour the edges of the marshes of the Isle Of Grain, and gradually wash me away from the stifling ooze of bust love. When gasping with the adrenaline of sudden change the future opens up, constraints vanish and light gets in, but all too bright and blinding. I had no vision of what the year might hold for me back then, aside from a deep hope that it’d be better than the one before. Planning for happiness, though, is a fool’s game, and 2015 unfolded in strange ways.
The year began with a return from the Thameside marshes to a small room in the back of a friends’ house in North East London, a temporary arrangement that became permanent as they decided they liked having me around, and I realised that independent online publishing (I co-edit music and culture site The Quietus) and freelance writing no longer pay for an existence in London’s vicious rental market. 2015 marked a decade and a half of living in the Capital, yet for the first time it felt as if the city I loved no longer wanted me. It has only been people who have kept me here, the generosity of friends and acquaintances allowing me to housesit or welcoming me into spare rooms. I spent three months living in a wonderful place on the early 20th century Tower Gardens Estate up in Tottenham. I’d take the bus past a run down Georgian building with a blue plaque to Luke Howard ‘Namer Of Clouds’ getting grimy from the traffic fumes, head towards Lordship Rec, and get out next to the former garage that had become a car wash and illegal hostel. 147 Tower Gardens Road was occupied by Ian Johnstone, a permaculture enthusiast and artist responsible for the later album artwork for Coil, whose vocalist Jhon Balance was his partner. It was like living inside the mind of an Edwardian mystic and explorer, the walls hung with paintings by Austen Osman Spare, Ian’s own work, taxidermy and Balance’s collection of completed Paint By Number pictures, often of the same images and patterns, but differing slightly. Trees and ivy crowded in against the windows, foxes flashed through the deliberately-planted wilderness outside, and all I could see from my bed was green. The house came to an end when Ian died in Spain on June 30th. I never had a chance to properly thank him for his kindness in allowing me into this sanctuary, one of those rare buildings that actually feels alive.
What I’ve taken the most from that year of unsettled existence is that there’s no real avoiding the necessity of rebuilding a life when it suddenly collapses behind and in front of you. To think of escape to new places as an easy panacea or green leaves as natural salve makes for a naive, homeopathic fallacy. Wherever I’ve been, from the crumbling shoreline of Norfolk and the rocky carns of Pembrokeshire via raving in a bizarre restaurant in Novosibirsk, Siberia or Berlin’s techno bum dungeons, to tripping along the moonlit estuary at Port Eliot, and repeated visits to Epping Forest to try and corral the stories of its people into words, the past has refused to be silent, conspiring with my natural tendency to doubt to sabotage the present and what might otherwise be new beginnings.
It has been friends that have helped drag me on through this, and I hope I’ll look back slightly amused at a year when spending 40 quid on an inflatable mattress to sleep on felt like a radical step to self-improvement (it’s given me a terrible backache). Yet just as pals and family have rallied round, they too have become part of the impermanence. Perhaps it’s age and this happens to everyone when the late-30s arrive, but serious illness has started to rear its head among dear friends, former lovers, and family. My dad has been inspirational in his humour and resilience as he recovers from an operation to remove prostate cancer. It was strange, though, to push him in a wheelchair. I’m frequently in a state of denial as to whether, like many of my generation, I’m refusing to accept my age and settle down as the world around us expects us to. The resistance of my dad’s weight against my pushing him across the smooth hospital floor was time’s gentle reminder that it will not be ignored.
We reached the turn of the Dengie as night was falling. The huge bulk of the Bradwell nuclear power station had loomed closer all afternoon, the thousands of lights on the scaffolding and cranes facilitating its decommissioning glowing through the thick wet air. The other, smaller building on the path ahead had looked like a rural barn, also covered in scaffolding with banners of plastic flapping in the wind. It was only up close that it became clear that this was the chapel of St. Peter-On-The-Wall, closed for refurbishment with its bright red roof off and a Portaloo plonked squarely in front of the of the west door. There was no getting in, so we rested for a while and squeezed out wet socks in an open-fronted shelter for ecclesiastically-minded walkers, watched over by a statue of Herself on the wall. A pair of German shepherd dogs, perhaps smelling my scotch egg, bounded into the alcove, their snarls joining the cold rush of the wind.