Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: February

Sue Brooks | 5th February 2019

Julia Blackburn’s Time Song: Searching for Doggerland, published at the end of this week by Jonathan Cape, is our Book of the Month for February. Sue Brooks reviews:

Julia Blackburn stands on the beach not far from her home in Suffolk, looking out across the North Sea. In her imagination, the landscape of the invisible country which was once there begins to take shape; its rivers and hills, its trees and marshes, and with it comes the dim outline of the book she will write. It will be called ‘Doggerland’. It will have three sections interspersed with songs and drawings. There is an inevitability about it, as if her life has prepared her for this moment.

So my thoughts ran as I was following her journey, wondering if it had always been thus at the start of a new book. Was there an inevitability about her other subjects too  – Billie Holiday, Napoleon on St Helena, Goya, Daisy Bates, Charles Waterton? An organic process with a touch of what might be called ‘sleight of hand’ – a phrase Julia loved when she was compiling A Conjuror’s Guide to Magic in 1972.

There is something quite magical about this book. It is full of surprises, of twists and turns, changes of tone and focus. Blackburn casually compresses vast sweeps of geological time into a paragraph, and then, in the same space, describes in intricate detail an artefact from the Mesolithic site at Star Carr, handed to her in a small plastic bag at the British Museum. ‘For a moment I could see the making of it; cutting the barbs, fixing the wooden shaft and then it was hurtling into action and entering the body of a fish that thrashed in the water.’ Julia and others who share her lifelong fascination with fossils, are able ‘in a sort of trance of concentration’ to see things most of us would hardly notice.

A chance encounter, a memory, something she read in the paper: random-seeming, yet it is as though a chorus of voices is calling her on and everything is in its proper sequence. She has a deceptively simple way of writing, almost childlike, never embellished, but behind it lies an artfulness that once sensed, is beautiful beyond words. The introductory two pages deserve rereading and I have done, many times. There is, indeed, a sleight of hand at work there which is absolutely delightful. Julia appears to be thinking backwards and forwards, talking to herself and also, confidingly, to the reader. Only a few writers come to mind for comparison. Jacquetta Hawkes’ 1951 masterpiece A Land, for one, also Ursula le Guin, Russell Hoban and Tove Jansson. Seers, all of them.

She begins by searching out the sites around the East Anglian coast where the oldest fossils have been found – 900,000 year old footprints, 700,000 year old flints. I am made dizzy by eons of time. There is linear time – B.P. in the scale used by geologists – and there is the present time, whenever it may be, conjured  by Julia’s steady voice telling me how it feels, for herself and for others. Bob Mutch, for example, who picked up the 700,000 year old flint, saying ‘you create your own reality and step into it, another world.’ She imagines Doggerland 17,000 years ago, emerging from its cloak of ice, where Neanderthals were hunting reindeer  migrating south. She talks with Klaas, a fisherman who has been hauling up mammoth bones from the North Sea for years. He describes a vast savannah landscape like the prairies of America, with herds of mammoth, some hyenas and rhinocerous. ‘Fishermen dream of the land that lies under the sea’ he says, ‘they walk over it in their dreams.’

‘Old Time’ changes to ‘Middle Time.’ The ‘Time Songs’ change too. Julia wants to get closer to the people who lived on Doggerland and the songs are becoming their songs, sometimes trance-like.  The drawings by her friend Enrique Brinkmann seem to have become more elaborate, and to look for all the world like a story, or perhaps a song coming into words.  We hear about dreams and hunting and death.

‘I feel the weight of horns upon my head. I feel an edge of pain as my heart is pierced by a stone point and I feel my blood running down the back of the man who has killed me, who is also myself, preparing to go out hunting.’ There is a sense of a voice much louder than the others. Is Julia preparing to meet someone? It is not her husband who died in 2013, but he is a part of it. She wonders how the people of Doggerland dealt with the act of dying. She tells us about her husband’s funeral, the collecting of the ashes and of eating some of them with yoghurt and honey, ‘startled by the act and the grittiness in my mouth.’ Suddenly, in 2017, she is in Denmark making a radio programme with Tim Dee about Tollund Man. Just a brief mention, but it seemed significant.

The final section is entitled ‘No Time At All’. She remembers hearing about a leaf that was held for a thousand years in peat water, looking exactly as it had when it fell from the tree, but once found by human hands and exposed to the air, disintegrated immediately. The meeting, I felt, was not far away now.

Julia writes ‘of all the images of time passing and yet not passing, of the dead being absent and yet present, nothing for me is as vivid as Tollund Man, who was found in 1950 in the bog in which he had lain for 2,400 years and who still looks as if he is drifting in a quiet sleep from which he might stir and wake at any moment.’

The passage in which she sits beside the glass case in the museum in Copenhagen is, for me, one of the most moving in the book. In her clear, matters-of-fact prose, she sets the scene: ‘There were no windows but the walls were painted in a yellow ochre wash that made it look as if sunlight was shifting across them.’ She moves a wooden stool close to the glass case so she can sit facing his face. She leaves a memorable epitaph. ‘As soon as my husband had died, the person he had been was no longer there, while Tollund Man appeared to be still inhabited by himself.’

Time Song 18 is a beautiful letter in the form of a poem, written to her dead husband. The journey is over. Everything forgotten and remembered and forgotten again, as is the nature of Time. I felt oddly elated as I reached the last page: ‘It was beautiful beyond words. I was only there for a little while, and then I returned home.’ This simple metaphor rang in my head and still does. It seems to hold all the pathos, tragedy and fear of our present situation – all that we know about an Earth which will soon be uninhabitable for most species including our own. I felt for a moment like a small child taken by a wise older woman to look over the edge. ‘You see’, she says in her calm voice, ‘there is nothing to be afraid of.

The world will continue
Even if we have gone
And that is surely something
To smile about.’


‘Time Song’ is available here in the Caught by the River shop, priced £20.00.