Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Ian Preece

Ian Preece | 13th January 2023

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 Ian Preece.

I went to Paris on a school trip aged 11 in 1978 — a pretty terrifying first trip abroad and first time away from home, which involved sleeping in a kind of dormitory/scuzzy hotel room with male members of my school year; alleged ‘horsemeat’ on our plates; and a furtive excursion to a toy shop to obtain a French die-cast model bus (to add to my Dinky/Corgi collection) without, of course, alerting my classmates to such a transaction. Eight years later, in 1986, I was back, having travelled from South Wales in the back of a van with some college friends: I got so wrecked I threw up in a bar in Montmartre, the landlady closed the establishment early and kicked us all out while beating me over the head with a broom handle. Later that night I got trapped in the metro system after the last train — a common occurrence it seemed; I remember some locals helping me shimmy up a drain pipe, onto a station roof, then rolling off the other side. Somehow I made it back to our hostel. In 2005 there was a work trip to see the final day of the Tour de France (I was editing a book about it) — an enjoyable day out, but I didn’t exactly get to see much of Paris itself.

So, what a revelation to finally hang out in this beautiful city as a kind of grown-up. To lounge around on the plentiful green iron chairs in the Jardin du Luxembourg, reading our books in the warm autumn sunshine — surrounded by lots of other people also reading books. To check out the cool record shops of the Bastille and 11th arrondissement, like Big Wax, Betino’s and Patate — and the excellent Balades Sonores just below Montmartre which has a back wall, floor to ceiling, dedicated to African vinyl, more or less categorised by country or region. To sit outside an old wood-panelled bar by the Canal Saint-Martin, gazing over the water, drinking citron pressés, watching the world pass by in the sunshine. Essentially, the inner périphérique of Paris hasn’t really been ripped apart by property developers with vacuous grotesqueries such as the temple of marketing that is the Now/Outernet Building (or whatever it’s called) in mind, and still retains much of what Ian Nairn described in 1968 as its ‘everyday elegance’.

By no means am I/we loaded — but I’m privileged enough (and it’s an antidote to long hours spent in front of the computer screen) to travel here and there, now and again. I love soaking up new countries, new places, new cultures. I didn’t fly anywhere until I was 23 — previously having spent a handful of childhood holidays on the Lincolnshire riviera between Mablethorpe, Sutton on Sea, Ingoldmells and Skeg, and a couple of August fortnights at my cousins’ in Crawley in the mid-1970s. So, during a year like 2022 that involved, unusually, a berserk amount of travel (part work; part holiday; part on the road giddily following Nottingham Forest) — to Sunderland, Sheffield (twice), Newcastle (twice), North Yorkshire and Darlington, Manchester, Jersey, Paris, Milan/Naples/Paestum/Turin, Bournemouth (twice), Brighton, Canvey Island, Glasgow, the southern Lake District around Lake Windermere, and, just into the new year, Southampton (a fair bit of it, where possible, by rail, I should add) — it felt like my winning ticket had come up.

And yet . . . and yet . . . aside from seeing too many closed-down seaside boarding houses and family-run restaurants, hollowed-out shopping centres, derelict crazy golf courses, chintzy gift shops and over-priced bars, hotels and apartments in former industrial premises . . . there’s always the nagging question: what exactly am I doing here? Why am I in Grasmere, standing in the premises of what appears to be the largest jigsaw retailer in the northern hemisphere, studying the spines of thousands of jigsaw boxes depicting everything from nativity scenes and ice skating to Monet’s Water Lily Pond and the Settle to Carlisle steam railway? (Not least as I haven’t done a jigsaw since I was about 10 — I used to repeatedly do one given as a Christmas present: a small, oval-shaped jigsaw of a photograph of a grey spotted lynx sitting on a mountain top on a cloudy day.) Or drinking another beer, perusing another book or record shop, having another flat white, a creamy lemon sponge, witnessing health professionals trying to revive a homeless-looking teenager with addiction problems outside Napoli Centrale bus station, stumbling across a huge tent city just behind Gare du Nord . . .? Travel, they used to say, broadens the mind – but now tourism itself just seems another sick adjunct to what people have been describing since about 1980 as ‘late-stage’ (how ‘late’ can ‘late’ be?) capitalism. 

I dunno what the answer is any more (I never did) — other than, you have to keep searching, keep moving, and keep treating others with respect (members of the Tory government excepted). We were in the Photographers’ Gallery the other day, having some of these thoughts while looking at Chris Killip’s Retrospective — black and white photos of tough-living fishermen, sea-coal gatherers, punks and miners in the north-east in the 1980s. There was a young woman who, I’d vouch, has never been near a bingo hall in her life, talking loudly about ‘the beauty of working-class imagery’. I managed to escape from her, into another room, where it was quieter and I could almost smell the insides of the caravans of the sea-coal dwellers photographed by Killip. Then it became clear my other half could recite from memory the whole of W.B. Yeats’s ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ (also printed on the wall of the exhibition): 

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

That says it all, I think.