Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Sue Brooks

Sue Brooks | 20th January 2020

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 Sue Brooks:

I started the year reading aloud and ended it the same. Two books; two poles, and several points in between that joined them together, although I didn’t know it at the time.

This is the story.

I was deeply apprehensive about Underland. Fear and desire pulling against each other, especially the fear of nightmares from which I would never escape. Reading aloud in the darkest places was a comfort, something to hold onto until the light returned, and it meant I could give my whole attention to the drama and feel myself being changed. From Knowing to Understanding to Action, making 2019 a watershed year for Climate Change and the more-than-human-world. It has to start somewhere for each of us and those weeks in Underland were pivotal for me.

Later in the year came Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing, picking up from the last chapter in Underland, also called Surfacing. While reading Kathleen Jamie, I came across by chance (although I was beginning to think there was more than chance going on) an essay she had written on Little Toller’s online magazine The Clearing. It was called Lissen Every Thing Back. A small shock button clicked and with it a wave of excitement. I knew the quotation. I knew the book, and also with absolute certainty that I MUST read it. Or reread it after a 30 year gap. I tracked it down second hand after the outrage of finding it had been out of print for years. The title..? Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.

In the days before the book arrived, another shock was waiting to happen. Walking in the woods, I paused to read the signboard for the Geology Trail, as I have done several times before. I like the numbered illustrations of the geological epochs in the rocks along the course of the Soudley Brook. I scanned the text and a phrase hit me hard in the guts –  the rich legacy of industrial activity in the Forest of Dean. I read more carefully, down to the bottom of the board where the sponsors are listed, including The Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain. Another thump in the guts. Why was this so shocking….?? On one level, yes, coal mining has left a toxic legacy, and petrol also, but what was so different this time? Later, I realised it was the Riddley Walker effect: even before I held the book in my hand, I was seeing the signboard through his eyes – an object from a bygone civilization. The signboard was perhaps 20 years old, discoloured but still legible. Roughly 10 years since I first became aware of Global Warming, 5 years since I knew the word Anthropocene, and one year – this year – when it has occupied me completely. It sounds a small thing in the vastness of the Anthropocene, but it was another turning point, for me.

Riddley Walker arrives the following day – November 24th. A 2002 paperback with an introduction by Will Self and afterword, notes and glossary by the author. Excitement and fear in pretty well equal measure.

I read the first chapter aloud and all the fear evaporates. I can still do it. My reading mind can tune in to Riddleyspeak, even though it often creaks in other areas.  As Will Self almost says –  “there’s no two ways about it. Riddley Walker is a hard read.” You have to slow down; you have to summon every ounce of attention; you have to move at Riddley’s pace and remember that the book was 5 years in the making, endlessly revised and interconnected, complexity within complexity, essentially without answers, endings or beginnings. I ease into it, marvelling at how meanings ooze out of strange words, puzzling sometimes, turning a phrase over and over, waiting for it to emerge, like a relic of the twentyfirst century from the mud. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. I know if I am careful, I could reach the last page on the Winter Solstice. 

Riddley Walker is a monumental book of complete mastery. My book of the year, and for the decade to come. As prescient and powerful as the day it was conceived – March 14th1974 in Canterbury Cathedral. I won’t quote the last line from December 21st2019, magnificent as it is, but here are one or two others –

Lissening back for all the souns whatre gone from us.

there aint no only my self you all ways have every 1 and every thing on your back. Them as stood and them as run time back way back long long time they had me on ther back if they knowit or if they dint.

How I ever cudve fealt a live befor I begun to take things in like I wer now. I wantit to move I wantit to do I wantit to happen with what ever wer happening roun me.

You know whats in that dog its 1stknowing. 1stknowing and the old ways from back before the clevverness. Thats all new to us tho innit. Becaws weve never had it yet. So that dog is dubbl blipful. Its the old going out plus its the new coming in and that new is the old old 1stknowing

go slow and scanful into the New Year, with all my best and most sparkling wishes.