Caught by the River

Pleasures of…May

Emma Warren | 2nd June 2019

Emma Warren shares select moments from the past month

My teenage diary entries mostly started with the same line: A lot has happened! It’s an appropriate start for my contemporary self, too. In the months before May began I finished a book and sent it to print, stressfully, with my marbles dropping out like they were rolling around in leaky colander. Publishing Make Some Spacestacked 1,000 books up the stairs into my flat like an exceptionally literal explanation of the work ahead. Their arrival created some new facts on the ground: I’m now an independent publisher, with a set of daily tasks on top all the other tasks and my actual, part-time, day job. Now there is social media, promotion, and distribution to attend to, including daily Post Office visits sending books to Japan, Canada, the Isle of Eigg and three streets away in Lewisham. Of course, I underestimated all of the above.

I also underestimated how I’d feel about publishing a book. You’d think it’d be all glow, right? It should have been: I’d sold hundreds of copies within weeks, it was getting brilliant coverage and reviews, and most importantly, it was doing what I wanted it to do: making people feel like it’s both necessary and possible to gather with friends to do stuff. I know this because people who’d read it were contacting me to say so, just weeks after the books landed on my stairs. The launch events were warm, funny, DIY like the story and exactly as they should have been. 

My experience was more complicated. I felt… ginger. Gingerly looking at the book (where are the mistakes?) gingerly receiving the praise (it was a collective effort!) and gingerly accepting the fact that I’d thrown myself in the middle of the room. Plus I was worn out. Like really, really tired. I have a broken stop button, though, so I just carried on, even though my mind and my body were sending out increasingly strong signals that All Was Not Well. Just as an example, I watched myself up town one day, looking at other people’s bags or rubbish bins and thinking that’s probably a bomb, so is that one, that one too. Oh well, bombs. 

A few lucky coincidences and the fact that I’m a white woman who can afford to say fuck it and go away for a week meant that I went away for a week, to the Drôme region of France. To be honest, I’d never even heard of the Drôme but I like a word with a hat on it and it also meant taking trains (I’m not flying anymore, if I can help it. Sincere thanks for the wake-up, Extinction Rebellion).  

For the first four or five days I slept and ate and slept and did as little as possible. Then when I felt myself beginning to emerge again, I scrambled slowly up the Sentier du Devès, a 4km, two hour walk above the town of Nyons. They call this place ‘Petit Nice’ because it sits in a bowl of alps and hills with the kind of micro-climate that only wrap-around mountains can provide. This particular walk takes in scree, high altitude heath, holm oak-heavy woodland, and a spartan, crumbling hermitage with views across the valley. 

Sidenote: there was enjoyable comedy on the info board that described the dry, herby, heathland section of the walk using the technical term – garrigue – and then included this word on the glossary with the English translation just repeating the French. Shrug! C’est la garrigue! It immediately reminded me of the Mediterranean dome at the Eden Project (which might be the most city-centred sentence I’ve ever typed, but it’s what came to mind). The real version of what Eden captures, though, has warmth and rocks and old roots snaking across the path and the indistinguishable rustle of crickets and lizards and adders in the scrubby bushes. It has cloud-scents of wild jasmine mixing with almost-visible scent trails of Syrian pine, and huge, shiny bee-beetles hard black against the brilliant yellow beaks of broom. The heavy weather I was carrying round in a tight-fitting snow globe around my head was being replaced by a warm and diffuse biome of lark song and thyme. 

So I’m in the derelict hermitage at the high point of the walk, looking out across the valley on seating that someone has fashioned from two broken café chairs and a bit of tree. It’s an excellent place to sit. I hear dogs and footfall behind me and there’s a lady, maybe ten years older than me, walking towards the hermitage trailing a multi-coloured feather boa across one shoulder. “Did you hear shooting?” she asks me in French. I’m like, err, no and I don’t speak French fluently, so can you repeat that? She made horn signs at the side of her head. “Wild boar, they shoot them up here,” she said, foot up on the hermitage window like a guitarist on the monitor. First, we established that the risk of being shot was approximately nil, then we began to chat. Turns out Florence wasn’t wearing the rainbow feather boa for style. She was performing an act of mountainside tidying-up. The kids from the local school come up here to drink, she said, making the universally French sign for drinking, rocking her thumb towards her mouth so that her little finger rocked upwards in response. The feather boa had been left in a tree, but she untangled it and was carrying it down into town so that she could bin it. I’m walking back, maybe an hour later, when I notice a particularly bright red flower, with diffuse petals almost like a caterpillar, so I bend down to take a look and realise that it’s a feather from Florence’s rainbow boa. Ha! I put it in my jeans pocket like proof. 

The next afternoon I’m just strolling because I’m still trying to decompress and I’m still trying to stop my pathologically active mind from attacking me with More Good Ideas. It’s hot, and I don’t have a hat, so I pull out my blue linen scarf and make a head-wrap. I tie it nicely, with a rose at the front, although given the skill with which women create hijab and head coverings worldwide, it’s definitely in the beginners’ camp. But there’s no-one around to see and the material protects my forehead which would otherwise burn, and the tied rose at the front offers some shade across my face. I start to wonder if this is what middle-age eccentricity looks like, walking alone in the sun, with no-one around, covering my hair with a scarf pulled out of my backpack. Then I sink into the thought – it’s Ramadan, after all – and wonder what questions would be raised if I was doing this same walk, for the same reasons, carrying more melanin in my skin, or if my biscuit-shaded arms and legs were darker, and my hair browner. There’s a reason most nature writers would be described as white. 

On the train back to Paris, I’m thinking about the European elections and Richard King’s brilliant book The Lark Ascendingand the clever way he tracks the differently dangerous ways people have expressed their human relationship to the land. My brain starts composing a quiz like you’d find in a magazine, for an imagined article titled ‘Nature-Lover or Fascist?’ which you could use to discover whether your relationship to the land is a) not at all fascist b) maybe a bit fascist or c) sorry, but heading in that direction. 

Question one. 
Do you love the land and believe it sustains us? 

Question two. 
Do you believe that you have a profound connection to any specific piece of land or landscape, or land-furniture: trees, lakes, rivers, mountains?

Question three, where it starts to get shaky. 
Do you believe this connection is with where you believe you’re from, and that this connection is to do with two or three generations of ancestors coming from the same place (regardless of where they came from before?)

Question four, the decider. 
Is this sense of profound ownership exclusive to you and to people who share a similar set of ancestors, or to those who look like they might share a similar set of ancestors? Or more specifically, are people who don’t look like you excluded from owning the land like you own it – in your bones? 

It’s more complicated than the quiz, of course. If it wasn’t, Take A Break and Bella would have all the answers we need. I re-read my imaginary magazine questions from the perspective of my friend Lindokuhle in Johannesburg where questions of land rights are tightly linked to apartheid. Her answers might well be the same as That Bloke From The Pub In Kent who we won’t deign with a name any more. Overly-active mind or not, we’ve all got some questions to ask ourselves. 


Make Some Space: Tuning into Total Refreshment Centre is out now and available here in our shop, priced £12.00. Emma’s Rough Trade Books Pamphlet Steam Down or How Things Begin, a celebration of an influential weekly jam in Deptford, is also out now.

Emma will discuss Make Some Space on our stage at this year’s Port Eliot Festival, as well as taking on the roles of interviewer and MC at The Good Life Experience and our fiction-focussed Hebden Bridge event.