Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Brian Catling

11th October 2022

Matthew Shaw pays tribute to sculptor, poet, novelist, film maker, performance artist and friend Brian Catling, who died last month aged 73.

Brian Catling photographed by Matthew Shaw at The Old Operating Theatre

The 33 pulls out of the station in Gloucester on a bright clear morning. I’m heading to Ross-on-Wye to meet Gwenno and her band and join the tour bus onwards towards Liverpool for tonight’s gig.

As I pass the ancient churches and ruins I see Brian Catling out of the corner of my eye; walking, interpreting and absorbing all he sees before transmuting the images, words and atmospheres into something of his own making. I know, though, that I can’t have really seen Brian as he died two days ago. He’s been on my mind constantly, while awake and in my dreams.

Out of the window I see Brian’s painting of a flea: it’s moving across the sky, itself a transformed vaporous image inspired by Blake’s iconic painting, a favourite of Brian’s. 

Those of us that were lucky enough to know Brian will no doubt value him as a teacher, as an artist, as a dear friend. I’ve never met anyone quite like him.

Last year after a long delay we finally performed Crowlink at Charleston House together, alongside Shirley Collins and her Lodestar band. Brian wrote a series of poems for the event, set to the music I composed for him and read by a series of friends and artists. His words rang out, hovered in the air of the garden. Later Brian read some of these poems live before Shirley and the band closed the evening with their wonderful music.

A few years earlier I had asked Brian if I could make a film about him. I confessed I needed to make the film in order to try to understand him better. So vast and expansive was his world, work and output; who was Brian Catling and what made him tick?

As part of this process we visited Wayland’s Smithy together. On leaving we both turned to look back at the stones at the same time. We both felt the presence of someone or something behind us. An uncanny moment. Brian explained to me that the feeling was us knowing we had left a part of ourselves behind at the stones until we returned again. Brian turned this moment into a poem: 

Sunken nightfall folds the clouds against 
the sound of our departing. 
Voices suddenly spent against the Smithy 
Pressing age. 
leaking us back to the car, the roads, 
to the dense flicker of the living. 
away from the inner ground 
buried in the knowledge of too much, 
and the stones 
The very stones? 

That after we are gone 
and the land is gone, 
the molten core shrugged 
as if to a feather off 
will unhitch their roots 
and fall through the illimitable night 
without the faintest recall 
of resting before 
our little bones 
for a bit 
of a day.

Beautiful and haunting and full of the acute observation and poetic mind of Brian Catling.

Today feels as empty as yesterday but as the landscape opens up and the bus rattles on I remember Brian, his work ethic and his determination to push on, ever forward, fearlessly into the unknown and know we all must do the same.

“What drives me is the power of the imagination and how far you can go with it. And that’s something that everyone can develop. It’s the ultimate gift”. These words spoken by Brian and included in our film The Cast Squid of a Lost Character echo in my mind. I think of them often, of their belief in the power of imagination and our ability to create. Thank you Brian for the art, the poems, the novels — but most of all for your friendship. 

You can watch Brian in The Cast Squid of a Lost Character here.

If reading Brian for the first time, perhaps begin with The Vorrh, but really you can’t go wrong with anything he created.

Brian Catling, 23 October 1948 – 26 September 2022