Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Tim Dee

Tim Dee | 28th December 2019

It’s time once again for the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. From Tim Dee:

This year, I have written and cut, come and gone, and written and cut and come again. I knew before about an anagram of my name, but in 2019 the six reconfigured letters have truly sunk home: Edit Me.

I had two springs: a first spent indoors in Bristol, writing of other springs (Greenery, my book describing mostly birdy journeys that I, and some other seasonally affected types, have made, is published in March 2020), and a second, which began as I left the northern hemisphere at midsummer and arrived, one day later, at midwinter in Cape Town. In the subsequent spring, I delivered my book, and a baby was born (Adam, his mother is Claire); since then I have been mostly outside, with pram or baby-sling, watching whales and eland and baboons, trying to name some fynbos flowers, night-skying the Coal Sack and the kite-sticks of the Southern Cross, and looking out for the first European barn swallows to arrive at the south-western tip of Africa. Each year, these migrant birds, like me this year, exchange a spring in the north for one in the south. They are here today as I write: I have seen them from our stoep. My new book, too, begins in this place, at this time, with the same swallows.

I have written a little (a diary from Cape Town) about this new book here for CBTR; and perhaps I should write more on this and about what else I have done, the new books of others I have read*, the new music heard, the people met, the places encountered, the birds seen, but, instead, let me say a little something about what I haven’t done, a non-event.

This year has been the first in thirty that I have not made a radio programme. I’ve recorded my new baby’s babbles on my phone, and some frogs (Rose’s rain and Cape sand), and some birds new to me (grassbirds, dikkops, bokmakieries), around our (new family) house, but I have fashioned nothing from them. For the first year in three decades, I have broadcast no noise back to the world, not one moment of clatter or chatter, no prattle.

I left my job as a radio producer at the BBC in 2018. The previous year I had been ill and had lost my way with the work. Now, my flat in Bristol is filled with boxes of my old raw tapes saved from a Broadcasting House skip. I hope some will soon make it to an archive or a library (I physically need this to be the case in order to still live at that address). I haven’t played any recordings since I got them home. I couldn’t: my working life took me from analogue times to digital, from the magnetic to virtual, from imperial to metric, from quarter-inch tape and real razor blades, on through cassettes, mini-discs, and DATS, to end with wavs and other sound files and on-screen icons of razor blades; I no longer have the kit to listen back to at least two-thirds of my stuff. Instead, I have looked at thirty cardboard boxes and remembered what they hold.

By the end of my time at the BBC, I was close to having had enough of the human voice. Our din, I felt, I’d done. My beef, though, such as it was, was explicitly with our noise. I was still enamoured of the sonic welter of the sounding world and, more and more, I was switched on by wildtrack: all species of the wind, rain, the sea, birds. Those frequencies, the moving sounds, have never lost their power to restore me to life. My hearing is poor and is getting worse. All noise is quietening down for me, but (part because of this and certainly despite it) my ears are hungry still for wildtrack. And I want to redefine the word, which seems to me to say most of what I now want to hear. I’d like it thought of not as what is merely passing but as what is fully present, not as the background to the news but as the top-story. I said the same in 2017 in Richard Alwyn’s film for BBC 4, Into the Wind. The little 30-minute TV film now seems like an early-warning sign of where I have ended up. After a career recording a long chain of human voices, Richard indulged my radio-fantasies of an imagined retirement spent listening to the really big hitters of the sound world, the true outside broadcasts. Happily, the film found some friends – it has been repeated and has sat on the iPlayer for a while, and it even prompted mirth on Gogglebox on Channel 4, where I was called the most boring person in the world. In the same spirit, it felt fitting to me, and good, that one of the last programmes I made for BBC radio was a dawn chorus relay from a Somerset reed-bed; in that broadcast, as we finished six hours of live talk about the singing, we ended up saying less and listening more. For the last ninety minutes of our show it was just birds, but that was plenty. A true song of the earth was to be heard on the BBC.

Every job I have ever had has made me into a broadcaster of a kind. Nowadays, I write. As a boy, I delivered newspapers. I sorted letters at Christmas when I was a student. After my studies, I transcribed and wrote up the data tied to the legs of dead birds from Madagascar. I corrected the English missives of Hungarian birdwatchers. In my first proper employment, I dispatched photographers to picture the starving world for Save the Children. And then, for thirty years at the BBC, I cut the noisy air to time on tapes, and I drew my hand across my throat, to mime through studio glass, that live talk must come to an end…

And now – with my one surviving ear – I want to listen to all the sounds that were behind the human noise of those various broadcasts, to listen to the wildtrack to our times, to reflect on those auditory shadows and, if you’ll let me, to share some frequencies.

Such sounds need never stop, they might go on forever, almost all of them predate us and almost all will outlive us. ‘A quotation is not an excerpt’, Osip Mandelstam said, ‘a quotation is a cicada. It is part of its nature never to quiet down.’

Would you care, then, to hear some quotations from the wildtrack of my world? To share my collection of fridge hums? My shadow sounds? The buzz of the Earth? Listen. Here is a nightingale in Gloucestershire in 2016. Here is a nightingale in Gloucestershire in 2017. Here is what the battlefield at Borodino sounds like today. Here is Richard Long filling a bucket with Avon mud. Here is a skylark over the Somme. Here is the wind in the grass at Waterloo. Here is the wind in the grass at the Little Big Horn. Here is a pigeon loft in the Black Country. Here is the wind through a winter willow in eastern Hungary, and, here is the wind through the wire at Auschwitz. Here is Lucian laughing, aged one. Here is a walk into a cave at Cresswell Crags. Here is Elspeth Huxley driving me in her rusty Mini, very fast, down an Oxfordshire lane. Here is Peter Levi, in slippers, seeing me off at Frampton on Severn. Here is Ronald Blythe shutting his gate in Suffolk. Here I am falling asleep in a hammock in San Francisco with hummingbirds above me and passing jets overhead. Here are Christopher Hitchens’ flip-flops slapping the parquet of his apartment in Washington DC. Here is Peter Reading ordering at a pub in Ludlow. Here is a tawny owl hooting in B flat, as Gilbert White said they might. Here is a football match on a TV in a bar in Cadiz. Here is Tim Marlow’s stomach rumbling in Glasgow. Here is Tim Marlow eating a banana. Here is a reindeer walking a pavement near Tromsø. Here is Julien Green wheezing in bed. Here is Ian Hamilton smoking as he reads a poem. Here is an Aeolian harp. Here is a tree fallen into the sea at Covehithe. Here is the sea frozen at Tallinn. Here is the old police station being demolished in Bristol. Here are John Guare’s pugs snoring on his lap. Here is a playground in Belgium. Here is Anne Hollander fixing me a drink in Washington Square. Here are forty whooper swans landing on a lough at Carrigskeewaun. Here is Piccadilly Circus at nine on a rainy night. Here is a blackbird on my fenland neighbour’s TV aerial singing at dusk in March. Here are Waldemar Januszczak’s footsteps; here are Siobhan Davies’. Here is Joe Farrell interrupted in talking of Gavin Maxwell on Sicily by Dominic, aged five, asking to be picked up. Here is Roddy Doyle leaning against a wall in Dublin and laughing. Here is Susan Sontag saying No and, here, the hurt air around Roy Porter that she said it into. Here is Doris Lessing coming out of a lift at Broadcasting House moments after Kylie Minogue came out of another. Here are people walking down the incline at the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC. Here is a priest singing his prayers as he enters a rock church at Lalibela in Ethiopia. Here is Miroslav Holub sitting down in a Prague café with pigeons around his feet. Here is a jump-up party in St Lucia. Here is the yawp of a frigatebird. Here is Derek Walcott crying as he recites a poem by Walter de la Mare. Here is the lobby of the Hotel Bristol in Havana; here is the street where the Hotel Bristol was in Brody, Ukraine. Here is Julia Blackburn under a swirl of starlings at Wicken Fen. Here are some windows vibrating in my flat as a bus passes. Here is summer rain thundering into a gutter in Brașov, Romania. Here is a train sounding its klaxon as it passes, with Doppler effect, near Marfa in Texas that Peter Reading recorded for me. Here are some announcements from King’s Cross Station. Here are my children playing with their toy cars. Here is a jackhammer working on the nose of a mountain-sized sculpture of Crazy Horse in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Here is Basil Davidson making me tea and unfurling a map of the Vojvodina. Here are house martins at the ruined synagogue in Brody. Here is Christopher Hill’s wife bringing tea and biscuits into our interview. Here is Bernard Knox showing me the scar he got fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Here is the Busó carnival in Mohacs, Hungary. Here is a horse and cart passing the site of the Hotel Bristol in Brody. Here is a journey by rickshaw in Delhi. Here are the waves at the Malecón in Havana, and here am I describing the frigatebirds there. Here are goats in an olive grove on Cephalonia. Here is Claire shouting for a honeyguide in Tanzania. Here are swallows on the wires where Ezra Pound would have seen them from his Pisan prison. Here is the conductor’s ding-ding on a Number 19 bus at the Oval. Here is Michael Longley taking his trousers off to cross a tidal river in Mayo. Here is a bonfire. Here is a furrier stroking a sable-coat on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. Here is the car park at the Altamira bison cave. Here is a roe deer barking at night. Here is an electricity-substation purring in West Hampstead. Here is Mount Auburn cemetery near Harvard in May and a hermit thrush singing. Here are the Tuileries fountains. Here are some schoolchildren skipping and singing nearby the same. Here in Cornwall is Jane Darke leaning against her cooker and singing the Padstow Obby Oss Day Song. Here is John Berger serving me toast at his home in Paris. Here is lightning in Montana. Here is lightning in Wyoming. Here are the breeding gulls of Surtsey. Here are the breeding gulls of inner city Bristol heard from the roof of the Trenchard Street car-park. Here is inside the cairn at Maes Howe in Orkney on the Winter Solstice. Here is Zaffar Kunial saying Why don’t you say it instead of me. Here is the sound of sand on Fuerteventura. Here is Tom Pickard closing a car door at Morecombe Bay. Here is Helen Mort half way up the leaning steeple of the church in Chesterfield. Here are the shutters coming down at the medina in Marrakesh. Here is a busker playing steel-drums at Piccadilly Circus Tube station. Here is a Sioux girl offering me a dream-catcher and crystal meth at Pine Ridge. Here is the woman on my talking map saying You have reached your destination. Here is a blackbird singing in Belfast. Here is a baker from a bread-stall in Drohobycz, walking across a street and saying It was here, right here, where they shot Bruno Schulz dead. Here is the garden of Horace’s villa and its locked gate. Here are the rooks of León in Spain. Here is a busy white-sausage stall in Munich. Here is Matthew Hollis looking for Edward Thomas between a rookery and a tank on Salisbury Plain. Here is a hyena party hunting on the Serengeti. Here is backstage in a dark forest at the midsummer song festival at Riga. Here is a river pilot talking about seals and submarines at Maldon in Essex; here, the same day, is the man in the oyster café serving me and saying They’ve flown a plane into the Twin Towers. Here is the sun shining on lemon trees at Lake Garda. Here is a mosquito coming close. Here is the fizz of overhead power lines in rain. Here are three women swimming in an ice hole at Rovaniemi in Finland. Here are screaming swifts in Blackburn, Lancashire. Here is Times Square. Here are cicadas. Here are five thousand pink-footed geese. Here am I taking a noisy ticking clock from a radio studio in Exeter in order that Alice Oswald might stamp out a poem in her own time. Here is Aleksandar Hemon lighting a cigarette in Chicago. Here are some sheep. Here is Culbone Church. Here is Richard Holmes at Culbone Church unwrapping a copy of Purchas His Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the World and the Religions Observed in all Ages and places discovered, from the Creation unto this Present. Here are the doors opening on the Clockwork Orange at Cowcaddens. Here is the metro in Moscow. Here is Joe Papp saying nothing because the question was dumb. Here is Grahame Dangerfield catching a cobra at Lake Naivasha. Here is Claire Messud waiting for an ambulance to pass at Harvard. Here is Sharon Olds opening a window in New York City. Here is a brown bear in Serbia, though you cannot hear it. Here is the cable car on Mount Pilatus. Here is one gnu. Here is Cornelia Parker getting her hearing back after blowing up a garden shed. Here is J.M. Coetzee writing the question asked of him into a pocket diary with a pencil. Here are ten thousand gnu. Here is the Bluemull ferry. Here is the wind at the ruins of the house where Rimbaud lived as a boy. Here is Christopher Cook walking up the outside steps at the Esterházy palace. Here is Christopher Cook eating noodles in Beijing. Here is George Szirtes walking up the inside staircase at the Esterházy palace. Here is Natalie Wheen opening a church door for J.L. Carr. Here is a blackbird chinking as another chooks. Here are forty thousand rooks and jackdaws going to bed. Here is a persimmon orchard near the Great Wall. Here is a roundabout in south Birmingham. Here is Jen Hadfield in a rock-pool in Shetland. Here are the wolves of the Lamar Valley. Here is the turbid River Semois. Here is a fly cast on the Test. Here is my uncle Geoff playing the vibes. Here is Antony Sher acting Isaac Babel raising his head from a torturer’s bucket of water. Here is the Tollund Man asleep in his glass case. Here is Irving Finkel’s office at the British Museum. Here is an oven made in Leeds at work at Crematorium Number Two in Moscow. Here is Zinovy Zinik saying, also in Moscow, Did you see it? of a corpse on a mortuary slab. Here is a brass band playing in an allotment near Rochdale. Here is the Olduvai Gorge. Here is a dustcart singing its Caution-I-am-Reversing song. Here is the same recorded from further away, just for good measure. Here is the best of all my winds. Here is Calamity Jane’s grave at Deadwood. Here am I in Mexborough asking Steve Ely to repeat himself about Ted Hughes’ childhood paper-round because I had wiped his first answer by mistake. Here is a rookery. Here are catfish eating bread rolls in the cooling ponds at Chernobyl. Here are the gulls of Peterhead, lured with half a loaf of white sliced, which Malcolm, a reporter who schooled me on You and Yours, told me to keep in my UHER bag. Here is the cluttered office of a lawyer in Chandigarh in the building designed by Le Corbusier. Here is a redstart at Horner Water, singing first, then calling. Here is Richard Holmes crossing the Alps. Here is Nick Davies imitating a cuckoo at Wicken Fen. Here are some jackdaws excited by the wind in the Avon Gorge. Here is the stone circle at Stanton Drew at midnight in June and the rustle of Ronald Hutton. Here is George Szirtes being jostled by an anti-Semite at a demonstration in Budapest. Here, at Holkham, are pink-footed geese, and here greylags. Here is Paul Farley stroking a stuffed passenger pigeon. Here are some Hadza men in Tanzania whistling to tell a honeyguide that they are listening. Here is a vent of steam on Surtsey. Here are crickets that I cannot hear any more. Here is the harbour at Dieppe and the ghost of Oscar Wilde. Here is the graveyard on Nantucket with Jeremy Harding shivering there. Here, in Paris, is the wallpapered room where Oscar Wilde died. Here are some back streets of Palermo. Here are the cliffs on Noss. Here is a radio playing in Cluj. Here is an old Hungarian lady singing to us from her bed in Szek in Romania. Here are some brent geese passing. Here is the Fountain of Tears at Bakhchisaray, Crimea. Here is a stopped interview that waits for the aeroplane to pass, here another. Here is multipurpose sea wash, here generic rain. Here is the turning blade of a wind turbine near Tarifa. Here are some dogs barking at Uzhgorod. Here is a bar. Here is a bar. Here is the beach at Kilve, here at Porthcothan, here at Zennor. Here is Lavinia Greenlaw walking in snow at midwinter and here she is walking on sand at midsummer. Here is a spring bubbling from on a hillside in Devon. Here is the Baltic breaking hardly at all on the coast of Saaremaa in Estonia. Here is the foghorn at Portland Bill, and here on Fair Isle. Here is a walk into a free-miner’s coal mine in the Forest of Dean. Here is the sea at Troy. Here is Greg Poole sitting down to listen to a nightingale. Here is Mark Gatiss imitating the calls of a Bristolian newspaper vendor. Here is Simon Armitage digging a hole as a toilet on Surtsey. Here is a phone ringing in an old red phone box. Here is Hayden Lorimer falling over on ice in Norway. Here is Ken Smith falling into a ditch in Slovakia. Here is Balaclava. Here is Catherine Merridale and Zinovy Zinik dancing with an old soldier at a veteran’s parade near Red Square. Here is the wind that was good for cold days that Iain Hunter found for me. Here are people shouting at Ethiopian Jews at Gondar. Here is ablackbird. Here are lekking black grouse. Here is the Hermitage and these are the footsteps of John Simpson. Here is a wrecked harbour porpoise being opened with an electric saw. Here are some of the breeding Manx shearwaters of Rhum crashing into the hillside on a wet and foggy night. Here is Mark Cocker sliding down the hillside while trying to speak of Manx shearwaters. Here is Gillian Clarke talking about curlews. Here I am being sick into my hand after a night out with Christopher Hitchens and a former Black Panther in Havana. Here is a nightjar. Here are the bells of the Old Town Square in Prague, and here of Mells in Somerset. Here is the pine-wood at Rothiemurchas. Here is Richard Mabey smiling while thinking of wolves at Rothiemurchas. Here is Chris Mead being interrupted by nightingales. Here is Jaan Kaplinski using his axe, and here, the same, Adam Nicolson. Here is Dexter Petley landing a carp in France. Here is a match strike. Here is Nigel Hawthorne swearing in his George III dressing room at the National Theatre. Here is the stairway at Mousa Broch with storm petrels singing from cracks in the wall. Here are some caged oriental larks singing at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Here are Zinovy Zinik’s footsteps at Kant’s tomb in Kaliningrad, and here are Andy Kershaw’s. Here is a man drinking a glass of snake penis wine in Beijing. Here is my mum in her back garden in Minehead shouting Puss, Puss to get the cat in. Here is Clive James describing his medication by way of level taking. Here is sand blowing on the beach at Skegness. Here is the sand blowing against the blow-hole of a dead sperm whale beached on the beach at Skegness. Here is Stephen Smith on a train near Medellin in Colombia. Here is Kathleen Jamie being bombed by a bonxie. Here is Lesley Chamberlain looking for a tombstone in a Paris cemetery. Here is Philip Hoare at Portsmouth waiting for a wave. Here is Susannah Clapp opening a window talking about Bruce Chatwin. Here is an old lady in her flat in Kerch in the Crimea serving tea with mouldy biscuits and talking of how she killed Germans in 1943. Here is an old man in his flat in Budapest serving us coffee and talking of how he killed Russians in 1956. Here is an old lady in her flat in St Petersburg serving us tea and talking of cannibalism. Here am I saying, I’ll just get a minute of this. Here the same. Here is a thrush nightingale and a street-cleaning lorry in Moscow. Here is Helen Macdonald in Leigh Woods in Bristol, crouching as a goshawk might mantle its prey. Here is a plane passing left to right, and here one going south to north up the centre of the image. Here is Roy Fisher’s cat interrupting his reading of a poem and talking of how Birmingham is what I think with. Here is George Melly laughing. Here is Fiona Shaw wishing me well on the day Dominic was born in her dressing room at the National Theatre. Here are swifts. Here is the beach at Malibu. Here is a California thrasher on Mulholland Drive. Here is the beach at Coney Island, with laughing gulls in the foreground and the Shoot-the- Freak sideshow huckster in the back. Here is a tram in Lvov. Here is a trolley bus in Lvov. Here is Fraser Harrison whale-watching in the Minch. Here are the fire- bellied toads at Brody, exactly where ninety years before from a café table in Paris, Joseph Roth wrote that they would be. Here is backstage at Glastonbury with muddy footsteps coming and going and Philip Core chatting with Alexei Sayle. Here am I waiting for a door to be answered. Here is a cup of coffee and a glass of wine being served at a zinc. Here is some wind in a hedge. Here is a minke whale blowing in the Minch. Here come the gypsies singing, ‘Here come the Gypsies’, and here is their music, crossing the border between Ukraine and Slovakia, coming through the wire and playing it too.

Here. Hear. Here. All messages received. And my love to all; over and out. Here come the pips. Some say the wind drowns out our voices, some say meaning gets lost in the ether. Didn’t the inventor of radio think it would reverberate with the sounds of the dead? ‘Eventually we shall all go’, Bill Manhire wrote in his magical poem ‘Kevin’, ‘into the dark furniture of the radio’.


*Of this year’s books to read (on top of all the expected triumphs of K. Jamie, R.Macfarlane et alia) I urge: Tessa Hadley’s novel Late in the Day, James Lasdun’s two novellas that make Victory, Paul Farley’s best possible bird-brained poetry collection The Mizzy, Adam Nicolson’s deeply loving inhabiting of Coleridge and Wordsworth in The Making of Poetry, and Jon Day’s how-racing-pigeons-can-bring-happiness book Homing.


Tim Dee’s Landfill, a junkyard-monograph about gulls and rubbish came out in 2018; Greenery: Journeys in Springtime is due from Jonathan Cape in March 2020 with the swallows.