Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Tom Bolton

Tom Bolton | 16th 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 Tom Bolton:

2019 was the year I published London’s Lost Rivers Volume 2, the sequel to my first book which came out as long ago as 2010. It has been hard work – fortunately I had forgotten how complicated a walk book is to write and produce – but I am delighted with the result. Much is down to the great people of Strange Attractor Press, not least magus Mark Pilkington, and photographer SF Said who traipsed around odd parts of London with me, bending the city to the will of his time-expired Polaroid film stock.

I also spent a lot of time in Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, promoting my previous book Low Country: Brexit on the Essex Coast, which was published by Penned in the Margins at the end of 2018. It was shortlisted for the New Angle Prize (for new writing about East Anglia), the first prize nomination I’ve ever received. I met many lovely people, spent time in Norwich – a place I’m very fond of and where I went to university – got drunk with bookshop proprietors and experienced an awards dinner for the first time. I felt like a proper rookie the next day when I realised that the pre-dinner photograph, taken before the winners were announced, had us all lined up in podium order. Tricks of the trade. 

I was grateful to be busy in a time when basic social assumptions are under increasing strain, and life gets ever harder for too many people. 2020 threatens more of the same, only worse – unbridled authoritarianism across the world, deeply untrustworthy figures running the UK, intolerance spreading, corporations taking control on their terms. It’s a dark time when the US President’s ex-director of communications calls him a fascist and a lawless criminal, while the rest of us shrug our shoulders and think ‘he’s only just noticed?’ But although the 2010s have ended, it does not yet feel like a change of era. Decades slip from their grooves and outstay their time, or pull up abruptly, short of the line. The 1980s began with a thud in 1979, as the Tories took power, and dragged on probably until the 1992 election. The 2000s lasted until at least the 2011 riots, or the 2012 Olympics. I’m holding out for something better than the 2019 election, a decisive event to kick off the 2020s. 

Meanwhile it’s an axiom that hard times produce good art, but there’s plenty of supporting evidence around right now. These are some of the things that have stayed with me:

Devoured by Anna Mackmin – a powerful novel set in a 1970s Norfolk commune by a former theatre director and first time writer, which is dark, sad, funny and very real.

The Swedish Cavalier by Leo Perutz – I’d never heard of this Austrian writer, but chanced upon his gripping mystical adventure novel with a thief and a soldier on the run on the battlefields of c17 Europe – in a genre of its own. 

Daniel Bennett’s first poetry collection, West South North, North South East from The High Window Press, packed with excellent, finely crafted poems which seek meaning among 21st century dislocation.

Lee Krasner’s retrospective at the Barbican Art Gallery – stunning abstracts belatedly given proper recognition, after being edited out of art history by Clement Greenberg.

Caryl Churchill’s quartet of new plays, Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. at the Royal Court. She’s our greatest living playwright, and at the age of 81 we still hang on her every word as she makes sense of the madness around us.

Shamira Turner in Human Jam at the Camden People’s Theatre, channelling the multiple spirits of the dead buried under St. James’s Gardens beside Euston Station, now exhumed for HS2. I think she was genuinely possessed.

The peerless Sh!t Theatre, taking a blowtorch to corruption in Malta in their show Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum with Expats. Since then, belated fall out from the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia has brought down the Maltese Prime Minister and much of his cabinet. Coincidence? And they added a bonus Christmas show, Sh!t Actually, a delightful evening which gave Love Actually exactly what it deserves.
Richard II at the Almeida with the great Simon Russell Beale, stripped back and staged in a steel box by Joe Hill-Gibbins. The classical master and the young pretender making Shakespeare new together. 

Wysing Polyphonic – this year’s 30th anniversary day festival in a field somewhere in Cambridgeshire was as full of revelations as ever, from the hall-shaking bass of AMRA to the hut-shaking rhythms of Loraine James.

The best of all Christmas gigs – James Yorkston’s annual December show in London, now at the Lexington. Just Yorkston, a guitar and some exceptional songs that mean a lot to the audience and to him.


London’s Lost Rivers Vol. 2 is out now and available here, priced £11.99.