Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Malcolm Anderson

Malcolm Anderson | 12th 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 Malcolm Anderson.

Boxing Day.

Another Covid Christmas, our second in Somerset where we haven’t been able to go out to the pub or see family. But we’ve cried at the Ghosts Christmas special on TV, we’ve eaten too much, drunk prosecco wearing paper hats that always tear when I put them on and ultimately made the most of another Christmas here.  

But it’s been quite a year, and as the Covid-free one I’m sat upstairs in the attic room in that post Christmas calm.  ‘Seventeen Seconds’ by The Cure is playing on the record player behind me quietly while the rest of the house has their illness-induced nap and it’s the perfect chance to sit here and think back across the last twelve months.

I’ve got a glass of the last batch of Savages Cottage Sloe Gin mixed with prosecco in front of me, so that seems like a good place to start.  

We moved out of Savages after seven years just over twelve months ago but its ghosts still echo off these Somerset walls daily.  Pictures of our wedding on the old French dresser we moved out to the cottage on the roofrack of the car, retold stories of lockdowns in the middle of five thousand acres and laughs shared in front of the log burner, the only heat in the house.  

More of MacCaig’s invisible treasures, etched into us like tattoos.  I have to break some bad news however; Savages is no more.  

We were the last keepers of that cottage’s energy and life, the last custodians of that slice of wild Wiltshire and it exists now only as a pile of crushed rubble.  A sub-base for another luxury pad for weekend wealth, escaping the city for the country a few times a year and for whom the £5000 per month rent is throwaway loose change.  

Those welcoming lights as you drove up the lane past the water pump house and under the old apple tree before the pond will now only shine fleetingly, perhaps on the weekends when a shoot is on, or over the holidays.  I suspect that I’ll feel that sweep of lane and see those glimpses of light through those old willows forever.  

I’ve been distracted from my reverie by scratching above my head, and I lean over a bit and can just see the silver head of a jackdaw out of the velux of the attic room.  Beyond, Wincanton’s roof tops spread out beyond the little River Cale and the old oak in the park.  I’m back in the room.

What else has been going on? 

Well, the job at the RHS is deeply fulfilling.  I can’t quite express after thirteen years at the National Trust how good it feels to now be valued, appreciated and trusted in a job.  You never really understand how ground down you are by something until you move on and I can now see that post-Covid redundancy was absolutely one of the best things that ever happened to me.  I’m surrounded by fantastic people and feel genuinely that I’m making a difference.  It’s quite something.

The house here in Wincanton is on the market, we’re moving on again.  I know, we’ve only been here a year…

Not a planned thing but Roz got a wonderful job up in North Devon so we’re off as soon as we can sell — Dartmoor, Exmoor and the Atlantic Ocean should feature heavily in our 2023.  Selling should of course have been a relatively simple thing, but well, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng happened and our chain collapsed two days after their disastrous mini-budget.  I won’t go into politics as don’t want to end the day with high blood pressure, but, bastards.  The whole miserable, inept, corrupt, vile, self-serving lot of them. Bastards.

Wincanton however has been a great home.  Small enough to get to know people, big enough to have some things to do.  Surrounded by amazing countryside and fantastic pubs, it’s just been a complete pleasure to explore all those quiet lanes, villages and pubs on our bikes.  

We’re definitely not moving because of the town.  Breakfast Bagels in Hoogaa, a glass of wine in the courtyard of Number Sixteen under summer skies.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the former drinking home of Terry Pratchett, has been our local.  Complete with its rough edges and proper characters it has been a welcoming unpolished gem of a pub, and it’s heartening to now almost be counted as part of the furniture.  

Reg, the lovely old gardener who’s lived here his whole life and most tea times can be found in one corner of the pub or another, paid me what might be the single biggest compliment I’ve ever received when we told him we were going to be leaving.  “That’s a shame, you fit right in, you’re at least half way sensible”.

2022 has also been the year where to be honest I’ve completely fallen out of love with fishing. I’ve barely been, and the times I have it just hasn’t feel right.

Some of that is probably the move away from the chalkstreams.  But that doesn’t quite explain it.  

Some is to do with an uncomfortableness, not so much with the moral issue of catching a fish, more to do with an understanding of how much pressure our rivers — and thus by virtue the fish — are under.  Over abstraction, high summer temperatures, sewage, road runoff, agricultural pollution.  Just a perfect storm of terrible conditions, and me adding to that stress by fishing for the poor spotty buggers just hasn’t felt right.

But no, even that doesn’t quite explain it.  I’ve puzzled with it all summer, and it only made sense when I got chatting to Charles who I fished with a few times in years gone by at a work conference.   In conversation it turned out we’d both found similar things with work and family time eating into the time we used to spend fishing, but most of all it was the loss for various reasons of our regular fishing friends that had changed how it felt to be out.

Some friends, in fact some very good friends, have died in the last few years and I do miss them dearly.  Some have had babies and their time is no longer their own (yes Polly I’m looking at YOU) and some friends are still there over on the chalk rivers but they just don’t travel much.  

One particular friend I’ve fished regularly with for over twenty years. We’ve lived together, helped each other through breakups and tumultuous relationships, he even helped me save everything in Drove Cottage during the flood.  Yet for some reason, some argument over something that I’m too dim to have noticed or just by me being a complete idiot, we haven’t spoken in months and months.  

But while talking to Charles I realised it’s that bit that’s broken.

All the stuff about distance, about the pressure that our rivers are under — that all matters, it’s all very real. But I can drive back to the chalk, I can shout and lobby and work to clean up rivers and I can fish in cooler months and in quieter places with less fishing pressure.  But friends, they’re the missing bit. 

The words written on those rocks and stones in A River Runs Through It are not the words of god for me, they’re the conversations and stories made on those rivers in good company. They are the memories of lives lived.

It’s a funny thing because fishing is a singularly insular activity, it’s quiet and focussed and I’d always really thought you did it alone.  In reality, you (or at least I) don’t, or not most of the time anyway.  It turns out it’s genuinely more about the people than I’ve ever realised.  

So, I’ve a whole new area to explore in 2023, a whole new set of rivers in the Taw, Torridge and Yeo.  A whole coastline on my doorstep to explore looking for Bass and Mullet; just not alone.  

So firstly, here’s to moving forwards.  To new years and new spaces. 

But secondly here’s to looking back and realising that the past, family and old friends are truly important.  

Here’s to those deep relationships that come from spending whole days by the water in companionable silence, the merciless ribbing of a good fish missed.  A pint shared as the sun sets on a summer day, a flask of tea on frozen winter riverbanks.  Whatsapp messages about how I should have been there yesterday.  Those friendships that make being on the riverbank so special.