Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Sue Brooks

Sue Brooks | 30th December 2016

…In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back on the past twelve months and share their moments;

This year has not been about me or what I did, what I wrote, said or even if I talked at all. I recall no conversation. No, it would be unwise of me to think anything I achieved is of more importance than the untimely erosion of those things we hold dear on Caught by the River. I was hooked, line and sinker, by the time I had gone back for the third reading. My introduction to Dexter Petley on January 1st 2015 (his Shadows and Reflections).

I can chart the progress over two years: the highs and the lows. In 2015 I chanced on Dexter’s account (on Lesley McDowell’s blog Confessions of a Literary Judge) of working as a sifter…the thousands and thousands of abominable entries that come at us at 8 o’clock on a Friday night like a poll tax riot…the opening paragraph, in a competition is a bit like a penalty shoot- out…once the reading is underway, not only are we literary bloodhounds after quarry, but there’s a great joy in discovering excellent writing. Great joy. And greater to come in 2016.

I listened to the conversation on Radio 4’s Natural Histories in July. Dexter on the subject of carp, and Tim Dee’s inspired collaboration between the voice and Jan Garbarek’s saxophone. Caught by the River announced there would be a for-one-week-only visit to the UK and a guest appearance at Port Eliot in August. The anticipation and the intense disappointment. Family commitments for the whole month made it impossible.

And then I read Love Madness Fishing.

This is not a book for anglers only, says the author in the introduction, or even men only – although that isn’t spelled out. But there is the suggestion that we could all have been anglers if we had paid more attention. Writing as a woman who has never held a rod or seen any other woman hold one or catch a fish, I can only say that it doesn’t matter. What I do know is how it feels to be hooked for the time it takes to read Love Madness Fishing twice and my favourite chapters over again. Each one glitters in its own way, but three are in another league altogether. No 7 – Mr Crabtree and his son Peter’s excruciating fall from grace. (Peter’s first word on page 4 of Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing is…Rather. I can be driving along somewhere and it comes into my head, and I’m laughing out loud. It never fails.) No 10 – Sarah and Dexter as adolescents: incandescent, agonising, triggering memories I rarely revisit except through fine details on the pages of someone else’s life.

And the incomparable No 15. The last chapter. It starts innocuously enough…the canal had a twilight familiarity…time on your hands will not wash off. The pace picks up…carp anglers like a triptych in a holy chapel…orders were on their way. The phone conversation with Don begins. Twisting the heart strings and pulling them tight until the tears come as a relief. Dexter walks to the lake and a carp rolled by the island. An oily wave spread like a black eye around it, like a wreath on a dead man’s front door. Why do I feel the death of this man, Doug Cavey, so acutely? Because he has lived in my senses. I can see and hear him, a gigantic presence on the other side of the fence. The only man known to Dexter as a child, who winked…another slow and winkless winter set in. Only now do I understand why the book is dedicated to Douglas Cavey, the true martyr of the rod. He’d done the deed, passed the mystery of happiness on before it soured…it was up to me now.

I think of this chapter as a kind of masterclass in writing that makes a sifter’s job worthwhile. Eleven pages along the road to Damascus, six of them on the phone. The sign was given. The vows taken, and there has been no looking back. 30 years since Doug Cavey’s death and the vows are more stripped down than ever. Dexter with Jan Garbarek in carp heaven, checking the air pressure, the temperature, waiting for mayfly, 998 and a south westerly. From April to September his home is biodegradable, he cooks on an open fire using scavenged wood, mostly alone.

Few of us can live like that. Few of us have experienced a coming of the rod aged five. But we recognise a person who keeps their word, someone who resists compromise and pays exquisite attention.

Caught by the River introduced Dexter as a legend. I looked it up – legend: a person having a special place in public esteem because of striking qualities or deeds, real or fictitious. Fishing or writing, it’s all about the choices we make. Dexter Petley has been, for me, a beacon in the mad world of 2016.

Sue Brooks on Caught by the River