Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Tim Dee

Tim Dee | 3rd January 2018

As we enter a new year, we ask our friends and collaborators to look back on the past twelve months and share their significant moments. From Tim Dee:

In 2017, I edited a book of new writing about people and places (Ground Work, forthcoming in March from Cape), I finished an overdue book about people and gulls and rubbish (Landfill, forthcoming from Little Toller), and I was ill (saved by Mr Kouparris and Mr Timoney and much of the North Bristol NHS trust).

Exit Planet Dust was a theme. My illness, in part, required the granulation of some unwanted internal geology after a grievous kidney stone rockfall. My gull book is as preoccupied by the bifurcation of the word dust (to remove and to put on) as it is concerned with the paradox of gulls making a living – the best times they’ve ever had – from the food we waste. The book I have put together on places is jammed with reports from subtopia. Wreck and ruin have seen through me and seen me through.

I wrote a list of ruined things or their near neighbours that have comforted me this year and in earlier times. It is all shadow but also reflects pretty much the tenor of my year. It begins with a cheery observation from a brilliantly miserable painter.

Well, today I went to visit the place where the dustmen dump the garbage. Lord, how beautiful that is … tomorrow I shall get some interesting objects from this Refuse Dump – including some broken streetlamps – rusted and twisted – on view – or to pose for me if you like the expression better. The dustmen will bring them around. That collection of discarded buckets, baskets, kettles, soldiers’ mess kettles, oil cans, iron wire, streetlamps, stovepipes was something out of a fairytale by Andersen … Whenever you come to The Hague, I shall be greatly pleased if you will allow me to take you to this and some other spots, which, although they are commonplace in the extreme, are really an artist’s paradise. Vincent van Gogh – letter to Anthon van Rappard, 1883

Ruining had me hooked even before I got to Pitsea landfill and its gulls in Essex. Working other dumps, I’ve watched black kites in Addis Ababa, lammergeyers bone-breaking in Gondar, marabous in Nairobi filling their great canoe-bills with gloop, dirty white storks in Jerez, dirty Egyptian vultures on Fuerteventura, dirtier white pelicans in Cape Town. After I went to Chernobyl (I wrote about it in Four Fields), I bought albums of photographs of the Exclusion Zone, its cancers and mushrooms. I followed the work of Carl Lavery and others as they sought to reclaim abandonment and toxicity, by exploring Hashima, a ruined industrial island, once the most densely populated place on Earth, off the coast of Nagasaki. When New Orleans was laid low by Hurricane Katrina, I ordered more books so I might map pictures on to the streets I’d known in the Lower Ninth Ward of the city (which I had visited to make a radio programme about Little Richard) and see how they looked when the levees broke and the houses drowned. I sought out recyclers for other radio work: Aleks Kolkowski who cuts analogue grooves into old CDs so that a gramophone might play them; Stephen Coates who collects soviet era samizdat music that was pressed on discarded hospital x-rays. At a crematorium on the edge of Moscow I spent a day watching the ovens and counting the unclaimed urns that filled its cellars. I read Peter Reading’s poems and Iain Sinclair and Nick Papadimitriou’s prose, one, the ‘laureate of grot’, all three, outstanding recyclers of trash.

Most things do fall apart. And the devil is in the details: an abandoned pram at a bus stop at Prypiat, a Crow pony rider visiting car crash death markers at the Little Big Horn. He also had the best tunes – requiem after requiem. Even as a child I’d enjoyed seeing the slogan on Syd Bishop’s lorries in South London that groaned and heaved with the body parts of dead buildings: Watch It Come Down! Demolition, I knew, was more exciting, more honest, than any construction. When they tore apart the old police headquarters in Bristol, I hung around and took forensic notes. I cherish Jonathan Meades’ TV film about rust. A new book I like by Caitlin Desilvey is called Curated Decay. I recently joined the pilgrims to the modern ruin of a 1960s seminary at Kilmahew on the Clyde: as striking a place now as it falls down as it was when built up. I made a radio programme about the Whole Earth Catalog, a bible for both lumpers and splitters, a book of everything for hippie America. I made another about Jane Darke’s house on a beach in north Cornwall that is filled with the harvest that the sea has sent to her shore: the wreck, the jetsam, the jettisoned and the lost. At Jane’s, I read Derek Tangye’s A Gull on the Roof, published in 1961, the year I was born, the first of a multi-volume light-hearted memoir about moving to Cornwall, and I tried to imagine a Cornish time before the Torrey Canyon oil-spill and the marine plastics crisis and gull-wars of today.

Liverpool 1964, my father, mother, aunt, boy cousin, girl cousin; I’m staring at my shoes

‘Nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it’ – so Malcolm describes the death of the Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth. We might say the same of most of our places today. The ones that matter to us are often going or gone. Ozymandias truncated says more than the whole man would. We don’t want to know how the garish Greeks painted their palaces. We laughed at a president for fixing a new marble penis on a dismembered Mars. Analogue scratches on vinyl speak of a relationship between sound and listener as no digital dead air can. Filters on our telephone cameras will age an image before our eyes. But modern life has always done this. These fragments, quoted T. S. Eliot, I have shored against my ruins. W. H. Auden was drawn to old human junk in rocky places:

Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery, That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.

Rimbaud, in A Season in Hell, liked trash and kitsch:

I liked idiotic paintings, motifs over doorways, stage sets, mummers’ backdrops, inn-signs, popular colour prints, unfashionable literature, church Latin, erotic books with poor spelling, the novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, small books for children, old operas, nonsensical refrains, galumphing rhythms.

The broken place speaks louder than the perfect place. Even the National Trust finds visitors more interested in the kitchens of the great house than their ballrooms. Downstairs tells more truth than up.

It is striking how ugly and broken are many of the places that tell these days. In much of Britain everyone navigates what Ian Nairn called subtopia. The drosscape, Alan Berger’s American term for the exploded metropolitan splurge of waste landscapes, is perfectly at home in the UK and extends for many miles in most directions. Topographical phenomenologists and cultural geographers have found things to say in the non-places, those zones where we, unwittingly, spend much of our lives, where indeed we mostly live, but where no one feels at home. There are books on shopping malls, the M25, there is Jean Baudrillard’s America. Extinctions, ghost walks, hauntings, the draw down of silting tides – all have made for copious place-based literary deposits. Edward Thomas has steered Matthew Hollis; the Thames estuary flooded Rachel Lichtenstein; Hayden Lorimer is excavating a pet cemetery on the North Sea shore.

W.G. Sebald was an unlikely tour-guide, but showed many readers some ways back into the richness of rot, the humus of memory meeting an evanescent world. But, long before Eeyore walked East Anglia, Richard Mabey had directed our attention to The Unofficial Countryside. Following him, Patrick Wright botanised on asphalt in A Journey Through Ruins and Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts wrote Edgelands and re-launched a habitat. Ken Worpole studied suburban cemeteries and paved-over front gardens. And, the whole of Essex seemed brought to book. Like a radioactive pellet, J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, the product of a sick man tracking a sick species in a sick place, became a holy text. Werner Herzog teaches it.

A kind of landfill grit, the granulated ordinary disposed-of past, has become a common currency. The country was gripped, in the autumn of 2017, by a case of civic constipation. We all waited whilst a fatberg, a 250-metre long solid mass of bad stuff flushed down some capital toilets was cleared from a blocked sewer in east London: 130 tonnes of food-waste, wet wipes, tights, nappies, sanitary towels and condoms.

And, although my room is crowded with poetry books and stuffed birds, salvaged whalebones and scratched LPs, and although I bought, second hand, all four volumes of Samuel Beckett’s letters, I take much more pleasure nowadays in trips to the household dump than in any sojourn in a shopping centre. People smile more as they throw things away; a different kind of nakedness is on show. Every night, to this day, my pillow rests at the base of a high rise of bookshelves where Gilles Peress’ photographs of the mass graves at Srebenica and Vukovar have taken a place; one shows the skeleton of a leg footing into a dirty sock and a scuffed and muddied trainer, the same brand, I think, that my teenage children used to leave on the stairs.

What is this urge to poke about the end of lives and rake over the wrecking of things? Why this itch? Am I unhealthily voyeuristic? And kidding myself – my social concern or desire to look head-on at historical truth actually answered by a species of pornography? Who would want to keep these relics close? An atrocity tourist, holidaying in other peoples’ misery?

That might be me. But I don’t know how to un-know any of this, or why it would be better to be in the dark about the dark. And, surely to look away, to turn your back on the ruining, is to blind-side life. Who has a memory from before they knew of death? It is terrifically hard to watch your children learn they must die but without coming into that knowing they cannot fully live as people. All of us have had to do it, trading bliss for whatever comes after. Might not, then, we best know living and best do it by seeing how it is thwarted and ended? And how, curiously, it also grows out of its opposite, from rot and dirt and dust, and often thrives most vividly at death’s door.


Tim Dee is a radio producer and writer and a big fan of CBTR.

Tim Dee on Caught by the River/on Twitter