Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Dan Richards

Dan Richards | 8th January 2017

…In which, as we enter a new year, our friends and collaborators look back on the past twelve months and share their moments;

‘I’m not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.’ Carry on, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse


There was a point in the pub, as the conversational tide turned decisively towards ‘oh god, she’s about to break up with me’, when I begin to talk about November.
The month was not yet over but already seemed, for me and so many others, personally, politically, musically and technologically, a humdinger of shite — a shit month in a beshitten year. If 2016 felt, to misquote Blackadder, like a year strewn with cowpats from the devil’s own satanic herd, then in November the Hades slurry-levee broke and inundated us all with cack. So I began to recapitulate ‘November’ in much the same way people in films attempt to keep a hijacker talking until they can come up with a plan — to buy some time, to try to change her mind, to stave off the inevitable…

Later that evening, newly single, trapped in a broken-down lift in Waterstones Piccadilly, awaiting the London Fire Brigade, I wondered what else the year might have in store; the night, for that matter. In the general scheme being trapped in a lift felt like light relief. It felt safe.

And why write this down? Why start here? Well, I write. This was how I got through this year, I wrote things down in order to try and make sense of the escalating havoc — trauma and joy — which formed 2016. But looking back at the year now I see that the way I dealt with and wrote about the last twelve months changed as I went along.

My first few diary entries from 2016 seem happy and innocuous enough. I had a nice new diary and was determined to maintain it. On the 8th, David Bowie released a new album:

‘Sat in Rough Trade East, listening to Blackstar. A toddler jiggles in her mother’s arms, little face smeared with cake.

Bowie hoots with glee as his band of jazzers barp and rip through ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore… and I think of Geoff Dyer’s sketch of Thelonious Monk as a man who ‘played each note as though astonished by the previous one’… the child bops on, pushing cake further round its face. Before leaving, it’s held up to talk to the cafe custodian — Wizard of Oz lion in a Cousteau hat — ‘Wow!’ his big eyes say to the child. ‘I know! Cake! Bowie! Cake! Wow-Oh-Wow!’

Bowie sings about Sue, snuffly percussion, sax honking like a flock of blue geese in a hurry. At the close, the drums go full Thunderbolt ‘brick in a tumble drier’ maelstrom. It sounds a lot of fun.’

11th January, 2016
‘David Bowie has died.

I wake up to the news on a Brockley sofa.

Mum phones, stunned, and we talk about how she saw the Hunky Dory and Ziggy tours in Bristol in 1971/72 — the gigs of her life. We talk about how Blackstar sounds so vital, the hours we spent in the worlds of his records, how I knew all the words to Let’s Dance as a baby… Once she’s rung off, I think of Cat People (Putting Out Fire) — how I used to wonder if Fire was the name of the cat.’

After that the diary begins to fizzle out and become more impressionistic, perhaps so I couldn’t be implicated in any further deaths of the people I wrote about. Reading it back I see that I was travelling on trains a lot:

5th February
‘Arrived at Gladstone’s Library in Flintshire to talk at their Hearth Festival.
Walked across a lot of fields of half-eaten pink turnips under oily skies.
Swirling camel-brick railway bridges.
Black woods full of hard rain.
Claustrophobic white noise — dusk fell fast.
Treacly mud.
Leaky boots.
Talk okay.’

17th March
‘Ploughland like sandpaper 40/80.
Roads like a whetstone.
Silken Wiltshire hills.
Ice in the air.
Very cold.
Trackside frost like swarf from a lathe
Spinning unseen in the sky.’

3rd April
‘Tree clearance in cuttings.

Brambles and undergrowth chopped to reveal bleached wrappers, paper, plastic, cans — fly-tipped mattresses and paint tins; a bath, a bike, a pram; half a greenhouse thrown over a garden wall… shattered cousin of Larkin’s hothouse — flashed uniquely / completely smashed.

Shameful shit.’

Then, shortly after Victoria Wood and Prince, I ditched the cursed diary completely and opted for Mac Notes, gnomic fragments Sent from my iPhone rather than paper and pen, although, in another capricious U-turn, I bought a box of top-end Blackwing pencils — Steinbeck and Disney’s weapon of choice — and a pad of Swedish paper for a trip to Iceland. I intended — fully intended, honestly, this was the plan — to tear into the next book on that trip — inspired by Horatio Clare who told me, straight-faced, that he can write whole chapters straight off the bat, fully formed paragraphs… I mean, what a terrible thing to say.

Once in Iceland, the pencils never left the box, never saw the light of day — of which there was a lot! I couldn’t take my eyes off Iceland. All the writing happened piecemeal, later, in pen and painfully slowly, as usual, although I did make a few notes on my phone:

31st May
‘Iceland for the first time. Einstök on tap! Climbed some fells and mountains in permanent daylight. Ferry to Heimaey. Climbed a volcano. Pointed at puffins. Failed at hitchhiking. Ate hotdogs. Glaciers and lava. Collected papery pine cones which moulted in my pockets. Yesterday a man with a red beard and sailor’s cap accosted me in the hostel with a bunch of rhubarb.’

Climbing Days was published. I had a launch in Norwich on the night of the referendum vote. At 2am everyone was merrily drunk in a cellar, at 2.30 everyone was sat hushed around a radio, fearing the worst. It felt like a scene from a wartime film. At some point I put on Radiohead’s album A Moon Shaped Pool. ‘This is a bit miserable’ some people said. Well, yeah, get used to it, I told them, evenly. ‘This is wonderful’ other people told me — I have an exceptionally diverse Norfolk-based friendship group — Well, yes, I told them, make the most of it. Tonight may mark the end of ‘wonderful’ as a viable concept.

The general feeling at Glastonbury was that the trench-foot/dysentery was karmic but misplaced.

Thereafter the year ran away from me and I stopped writing anything much apart from the proposal for my next book, which revolves around ideas of outpost, wilderness and solitude. The proposal game-plan grew ever more remote as the year unravelled, ideas of seclusion turning more towards ‘prepping.’ I stopped short of stockpiling canned food only because I was chronically short of cash.

Wealden, Curious Arts and Port Eliot festivals were joyous and fed my soul. I met a great many good folk and caught up with fine friends. Billy Bragg and Bo Ningen were wondrous. The weather was great. And I’ve written a little about this on CbtR already this year, but if there are better weekends to be had then I’d like to hear about them. In a year of boggling carnage they were still points of generous, eccentric, tolerant, open, interested community — good drinks, wild swimming, dancing, ‘good talk’ as my great-great-aunt would have said.

Colin Williams and Andy Childs were champion interlocutors.

Tomo, thanks for your forbearance with my tent by the river.

Martha, Diva, Jeff, Andrew, Robin, Carrie, Horatio, Will, David, Mathew, Stephanie, Ed, Rachael, Katherine, Pete, Steve — what a brilliant cohort and crew you are.

I’m writing this early on Boxing Day morning having just cleaned out and laid the fire after a fine Christmas Day of family, food and books.

My grandfather, Bob, turned 91 a few weeks ago and we drove over to collect him from his home in Bristol yesterday. He’s had a year of upset health — hospitals stays, tests, recovery, care — and though he’s slightly diminished from the Bob of last year, smaller perhaps, certainly frailer, slightly foggier, he’s still possessed of great stories and humour and sense. We cleaned his car yesterday — a car I doubt he’ll ever drive again. It sat resplendent, redundant and steaming on his drive surrounded by suds, but it pleased him so much. And I thought of The Snowman, that moment, my mind snapping from a soapy white Honda Civic to the Raymond Brigg’s classic — David Bowie in an attic. ‘He gave me this scarf; you see, he wuz a real snowman.’

Dan Richards on Caught by the River/on Twitter