Caught by the River

A postcard from Sue Brooks

Sue Brooks | 16th July 2017

It had taken much longer than usual to get there because most of the approach roads were closed and as I reached the carpark I could hear drumming. DRUMMING in a small Welsh town on a Sunday afternoon. Two fire engines in the main street and a pre-war double decker bus; further back, under the medieval bridge over the River Monnow, the drummers and two rows of dancing girls with waving arms. All marking time. Someone blew a whistle and the fire engines inched forward and the bus, empty except for the driver hunched over the wheel looking neither to right or left. After the bus, the tractors, all Massey Fergusons from the 1930s, lovingly maintained, the bonnet and wheel hubs painted bright yellow or red. After the tractors, the vintage motor bikes and after the bikes, the Mayor in fabulous regalia: a cloak and cocked hat as well as the chain of office. And then – the drummers, making the air throb, every molecule in every living being throb, the herring gulls and crows overhead, the crowds on the pavement, the bricks and mortar in the buildings I imagined. It was impossible to keep still. A small boy walking in the parade behind the drummers flung his arms and legs about so much he fell over – repeatedly.

Different drums and styles, different rhythms approaching and fading along the High Street. Last of all, a Samba band – immense variety of sound and intricate cross rhythms, the drummers predominantly female. Marvellous to see all those strong women in their element. The drums so heavy they needed padded cushions over hips and knees where the metal rims banged with every step. Small steps in time with the beat. Step, tap with the left: step, tap with the right, the drum swinging from side to side. The leader walking backwards in front, hands raised to keep the pattern of changes with his fingers.

More than a decade ago I belonged to a Djembe drumming group. I had my own drum, the fabulous tree funnel shape with a goat skin stretched tight over the mouth. I loved it. Standing on the pavement that hot afternoon every cell in my body longed to be drumming. Out there in the Samba band progressing up Monmouth High Street. The lump in my throat pushed up into my face and I had to blink the tears away. What is it about processions and marching bands?? Or any band on the move? More bittersweet that day because I felt the loss so keenly. My drumming days are over. Tinnitus turns the sound to hammers inside my head and it becomes unbearable. But there seemed to be something else about the tears. It takes you back to your childhood, doesn’t it? said the elderly lady – probably the same age as me – standing alongside on the pavement. The bus, the tractors, the motor bikes, the families dressed up in funny costumes in the parade. The Mayor in fancy dress. It’s true. It was all there in the small town of my childhood and in the even smaller village where my own children grew up. Nostalgia.

It was a day or two later that it came to me – what the drumming in Monmouth High Street was really about. Why it disturbed me so much. Atavistic. Further back than childhood. Further back than the womb. Our connection to the beating heart of the Universe.


Sue Brooks on Caught by the River