Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Neil Thomson

Neil Thomson | 21st December 2022

Every year, we give over all of December (and usually most of January) to a series called ‘Shadows and Reflections’, in which our contributors share highs, lows and oddments from the past 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Neil Thomson.

Son, what have you done?

‘You steer down lightless highways, and you invent a destination because movement is the key.’
— Nic Pizzolatto, Galveston

A year of roads. Home mostly the Motorways, those perennial tarmac rivers which begin in single track tributaries, then eddy and pool, split into dual carriageways, or pour into the abyssal estuaries of the London Orbital. I’ve driven 15,000 miles this summer, my ancient Saab now approaching Apollo 11 levels of mileage. 500 might pass in seemingly a few seconds before the rattle of soundcheck, drooling 1980’s drum machines, the hairy sync boxes and aux leads. Lobster watch for a few hours before the noise, the true purpose of all those miles, audiences circling like wolves as I sit side stage on overwatch duties. Then afterwards, mile upon mile into the glittering blackness, parked up lorries flash by in laybys like shipwrecks, marooned drivers asleep in their cabins. The band now fast asleep and wrapped in blankets against the summer chill, music always flowing through the cabin. Revolutions per minute and beats per minute in harmony, sequencers triggering the chant of ignition, compression combustion then exhaust. The rubber of the tyres and the headlights break the dark of the night ahead and leave tiny neon techno epiphanies like fluorescent plankton trails in our wake. Pausing at the silted up Service Stations, muddy pools at 4 a.m for terrible, but welcome, coffee and cigarettes. Then usually back to a seemingly empty Capital, a tiny cheer often from the passenger and backseat as we pass the Mercedes dealership on the North Circular with its neon “Welcome to London” sign, a city that at that time of night belongs to foxes, police, Toyota Ubers and the flotsam and jetsam of the previous evening lapping at the kerbs.

I found myself for much of the year in geostationary orbit around a band called The UmlautsAfter receiving signals from the PRAH Foundation H.Q I saw them play and was immediately taken. Photographing bands had become something of a chore, half an hour upstairs at The Moth Club feeling creatively, not to mention economically, fairly pointless. The Umlauts  seemed, and are, different.

“We’re just your average trans-European, multi-lingual, art-school, post-punk, techno-inspired, über-group/circus-troop/diaeresis.”

Their words, not mine. I mean. How could you not love them? You don’t even need to hear a note.

I found I could maybe make sense of photographing bands again. It felt more akin to previous assignments I’ve done with the military, embedded I suppose, sharing  the road and the noise with them in a photographic deep dive. Cameras and photography at best are portals through which you can pass into worlds normally unseen. I offered to drive (logistics with a nine-piece are never straightforward) and accompany them from festival main stages to regional venues. They agreed, and thousands of miles and hundreds of exposures followed. They played a cowshed in the Western Lake District and we spent the next morning hanging out and taking photographs on the beach at Ravenscarr, one of those perfect mornings where you can see for miles. It went on, via the Mountain Stage at Green Man, Halloween in Stroud and a headline tour. Thanks to Ollie, Annabelle, Maria, Alf, Patrick, Freya, Alex, Magdalena and Toby — It’s been the best of times, the best of times. Ümlauts forever.

One night we found ourselves at the already severely listing No. 44 Hawley Sq in Margate. I seem to have spent half the year there. After a show at Wherelsewhere we stayed up all night as the timbers creaked and ended up on Margate beach the next morning. When the wind, the light and the icy bike chain rain (as Silver Jews once described Portland in Winter) is right you can still connect nothing with nothing (as T.S Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, part of which was written in a Victorian shelter overlooking these sands). From there we watched No. 44 finally disappear beneath the waves.

Then always back to the pack. It’s been six years now since getting out of the Royal London Hospital after multiple surgeries and onto the Rezzies, the Marshes and the 20,000 streets under the East London sky with the dogs. When in London I’m never more than six feet from a canine, either our own old broken down Staffie (who crawled out of Battersea seven years ago and is now pushing sixteen) or the crew I look after and walk each day. Pomeranians to Italian Mastiff Cane Corsos, Bless ‘em all, the long and the short and the tall. On some of those thermonuclear summer days we headed into Epping Forest at 5am, the thermometer already pushing 25 degrees but out long before the sun reached critical mass, the kindling-dry woods utterly still, I watched the dogs startle deer, invisible statues around the trees at that time in the morning, that then took flight through the brush like silent banshees.They seemed to awake something bone deep in the genetic memory in the pack and I stood transfixed as French Bulldog and Hungarian Vizsla alike streaked off in pursuit (no hope of catching them of course), the prey long gone as they collapsed panting, wild eyed and white of tooth. I still find it amazing that so many of us share our lives with this entirely different species. They are the only real constant joy in my life, and these years with the dogs have convinced me they are more than capable of empathy, emotion, kindness even. Science is starting to agree. This morning’s conditions are literally the Polar opposite of the summer, with a good covering of snow over London. I can sense my charges will be fizzing with anticipation today, aching to run in the cold through the remembered arboreal forest in the frozen tracks laid down millennia ago by their lupine ancestors.

In the half light of almost sleep last night I heard a trailer for a new audio production of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, coming soon on the World Service. It was a childhood favourite and about as festive as I ever get. I remember one frozen morning in 1982 arriving at school after a huge dump of snow, one that at the time often blew in straight from the Urals and onto rural East Yorkshire, to find someone had graffited ‘The Dark is Rising’ on the side of the cricket pavilion. It was somewhat different to the usual biological scribbles found at an all boys school. The protagonist Will is guided through the book by the character of Merriman, part Norse Merlin and part a Tender Prey era cosmic Nick Cave. His advice to Will has stayed with me since I first read the book as a nine-year-old. A strong coda to live by I think

“Expect nothing and fear nothing, here or anywhere. That is your first lesson.”