Richard King reviews Virginia Astley’s ‘The English River: a journey down the Thames in poems & photographs’, our Book of the Month for June (published by Bloodaxe Books and out now).
Four years ago I spent an afternoon walking with Virginia Astley along the banks of the River Thames. It was the sort of bright day in early autumn, when the sun feels stronger than it is supposed to, which seems to exist only to remind you of the long-forgotten sensation of returning to school after summer. A day when the air is leaden with the negotiation of memories and time makes little sense.
Virginia and I had arranged to meet at the towpath in the village of Streatley. We were going to discuss From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, the beautiful, mysterious album she released in 1983, which was the subject of a chapter in a book I was in the middle of writing. Streatley and its neighbouring villages were the locations Virginia and her then-partner Russell Webb used for the recordings of wildlife that give the record its unique aural haze: the South Oxfordshire Thames at daybreak and at dusk, the striking of the church clock in the village of Moulsford and the insects and birdsong that evoke the passing of a day during an English, if not Home Counties, high summer. Virginia had kindly offered me a tour of the area and suggested the best way to approach the subject of From Gardens Where We Feels Secure was by going for a walk.
As I approached the bench we had agreed as a rendezvous I noticed that Virginia was engrossed in writing, but I nevertheless continued with the sort of awkward half-introduction that encounters between people who have only previously corresponded via email usually begin. Virginia looked up from her notebook, insisted that I hadn’t disturbed her and mentioned she was enjoying a productive period of writing poetry. Some work from that period is present in The English River, her first major collection; a document of the Thames in photographs and poems that examine ‘the river’s collective unconscious’ which Astley locates in lock depths, river markings
and how geese feed
spread in a line across the field
making their way slowly,
like a search party.
As we strolled the two miles along the riverbank towards the village of Moulsford where Virginia grew up, her familiarity with the environs was obvious. She indicated a lock keeper’s cottage and mentioned she was considering applying for a position as an assistant there as a means of spending her days immersed in the day-to-day activities of the river. Virginia was successful in her application and the sense of a return to a mentally ingrained location is a constant throughout The English River.
In ‘I breathe as though I’ve been submerged and am coming up for air’ she writes:
This is my remembered landscape,
stored in my earliest self,
and all along, I have been re-winding, re-playing,
continuing this quiet exchange.
This is a journey downriver from the security of a childhood spent on these sleepy banks, through the excitement and vitality of youth to the crises, losses and unplanned adjustments of adulthood, and the subsequent return journey, to the familiar territory of the river’s source that requires careful and unexpected navigation. The idea of the Thames as an idyll is resisted. We are led instead along a twentieth century river bank: paths are padlocked; in the low water of a heatwave an abandoned motorbike is visible in the water; a sign reads This Is A Multi-Hazardous Site. Keep Out; the crease in tarpaulin sheets covering small boats during winter fill up with pools of rain. In one photograph a rowing dinghy has been brought onto land, filled with topsoil and converted into a raised vegetable bed.
There are encounters with ghosts and half-remembered summer night intimacies that reappear, confused, in dreams. In ‘Somewhere I’m not a blow-in’ Astley is up early, unable to sleep, and looks in at the window of the village pub to see the ‘early morning cleaner’ working in the room…
where we drank every Christmas Eve,
I pause below the sign – the old one
painted all those years ago,
discarded and replaced
by something contemporary. Grey.
And Astley feels almost as an apparition herself:
see me out here in the dark
watching as she gather up cobwebs.
The half light of winter or early mornings is a regular background. Last year Astley was writer-in-residence at Thomas Hardy’s cottage in Dorset and several of these poems are set during ‘the weakening eye of the day’ of Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’.
In ‘Whitehill’ Astley and her companions ‘walk in lines in feeble light’. ‘Fallen Sallow’ is illuminated by ‘the smaller arc of sun’ and in ‘Coleshill in February’,
Even before the sun was up
the day had folded in.
Given her distinguished career it is unsurprising that music is an appreciable presence. In ‘The Weir at Benson’, she hears fluvial white noise as though processed through the studio effects of flange and phasing. Rather than melodious or soothing, the sound of water is distorted.
In ‘Chopin Opus 49’, the act of listening and the numb responsibility of caring for an elderly parent combine to overwhelm:
and now all these years later I’m sitting
as my daughter plays the same Fantasie in F minor
the saddest of keys that does something
to my breath every time,
the only key that always undoes me
and I’m with my mother after hours
of sick-bed Scrabble and the late sun comes out.
This is accompanied by one of the most arresting photographs in the volume, a picture of evening sun falling across the Thames at Goring, the shadows of the riverbank trees so large their darkness almost fills an empty field of grass.
For anyone who has spent hours immersed in the almost eerie, daydream state of From Gardens Where We Feels Secure there will be a moment of familiarity during ‘Moulsford To Cleeve’ in which Astley revisits the moment of shared family drama that inspired the record’s ‘The Fields Are On Fire’
those fields beyond,
how they blazed that time
the wind bellowed the stubble fire
and hearing a siren score the night air
we opened the door to watch
flames taking hold
blow-torching the hill.
Stubble burning has been banned in the United Kingdom since 1993. This incident from childhood remains lodged in the memory, but has now been amplified and distorted by the intervening years since it inspired Astley’s piece of music. What had once belonged to the more immediate past is now part of life’s archives.
The erosion of time is an inevitable subject when discussing work made decades earlier. As we spoke on the day we met about the summer months in 1982 when Astley recorded From Gardens, the erosion of the wildlife and biodiversity she had recorded for the record often featured in our conversation. We noted that the Thames, although burnished throughout our walk on an Indian Summer day, would never again sound as animated as it had done thirty years previously. Several species of bird had long been missing; the angelica and willowherb were strewn along the bank in their fine, faded hues, but other familiar wildflowers were absent. Our towpath meander was the first time it had occurred to me that every walk in rural or semi-rural Britain is now a form of re-enactment.
Some familiar sounds endure. From Gardens Where We Feel Secure concludes with the hooting of an owl and it is the same, ageless, meditative sound that draws The English River to an end.
The bird is present in ‘Homecoming’, the collection’s final poem, in which Astley examines her ‘withdrawal’ to this familiar but changed landscape of ‘chalk banks and beech woods’. The owl ‘would call to anyone still awake’, an implication that Astley has been up during the small hours on this quiet stretch of the Thames, accompanied by its baleful presence and witnessing the strange drift through the days produced by living alone by one’s wits to the rhythms of the countryside. There is an authority to these poems borne of the realisation that such a way of life is still possible.
The collection ends with a photograph of late summer teasels, their purple flower heads hardening before the autumn as they tower over the water from the riverbank. Teasels are notorious self-seeders, so their presence here among the endpapers should be taken as an assurance that more poetry from Astley will soon follow. Reading this collection I was reminded of something Virginia had said that day on our walk. As the Moulsford church bell came into view she came to a halt and, staring at the Thames said ‘I mean what, really, is a river?’
This vivid and poignant collection is her answer.
The English River is out now and available here, priced £12.00.
Richard King is the author of How Soon Is Now? and Original Rockers. The Lark Ascending is due for publication by Faber & Faber in May 2019.