Caught by the River editor Diva Harris brings Shadows & Reflections season to a close, looking back over a year of gorse, grasshoppers, and plentiful sausages.
It is my heart’s delight to be the custodian and conductor of this website all the year around, but especially in December and January, when I get to read and share a wealth and breadth of unexpected, unguarded missives from our contributors — who may have spent their year getting to know a bog, field or river; seeking out a soft-spot species, or unearthing family history in the shed.
Every year, I start a preemptive Google doc or note on my phone, fully intending to beat my own deadline for submissions to this column — and then most years the last three months unravel like a moth-eaten rug under my feet. But as a sage friend of the river once put it to me, it’s important to commit yourself to the things you ask of other people — so to round off this season of Shadows & Reflections, I thought I’d share a few edited highlights from my diary.
I have only recently come to understand that I’m not a person who thrives on order or routine, and am instead ruled by chaos — knowledge which has allowed me to start keeping a fairly consistent, if haphazard, diary for the first time in my life, after a lifetime of trying. I’m still working on the why to an extent — who is it for? Is it an act of self-interest? — but I do know it became a much more useful exercise when I abandoned the arbitrary requirement of daily entries and instead started thinking of my notebooks as a place where I can abandon things, write them down if I want to remember them in six months’ time, or chew over them some more. Notebooks is plural because, now locked in a tender, willing embrace with the chaotic, I have started carrying notebooks plural in bags, laptop cases, coat pockets. Some are lined, some have perforated pages, some are really tiny. Some just have shopping lists in. I decorate them with rubber stamps and fruit stickers and old gummed labels that came from my great-grandparents’ house (being someone who never throws anything away, from a long line of people who never throw anything away). The gum still sticks.
Sometimes I write long scrawls and other times I note down disparate words, intending to come back and round them out with meaning, but not ever getting to it, and later finding stranded little ghosts of thoughts. I quite like looking back at those; I have no idea why at some point in the last year I wrote “scallop valentine” into my phone, or another time just the word “tchotchkes”. (My phone is also a notebook).
Reading back over 2023’s entries, I like that they’re softly seasonal, tracking the arc of the year through the birds and bugs that crawl between the floorboards of my mostly metropolitan existence. I also write a lot about my dog, Nettle, who is, frankly, my sun, moon and stars. She is definitely also a beast ruled by chaos. 2023 was the year of her teenagehood, and much like teenaged humans, teenage dogs are rude. They do not respect authority and they huff at you and sometimes they put all four feet on the dining table or run out of the park or jump on random strangers when they’re covered in mud. Though she may still very occasionally sneak off with a sock, or charge at crows when she’s been asked not to, her hormone-flooded brain has mostly balanced itself out now — and even on her pain-in-the-arsiest of days, I could never wish away her precious life, or begrudge her her sense of humour.
I have no explanation for why so many of the following entries feature sausages.
Jumbly thoughts from December 2022
Faceful of dog that smells like vanilla and coconut as I greet her — learn that this is a consequence of pushing through the gorse (did not previously know the smell, or that gorse flowers are edible, and were big in Victorian puddings). Dreaming of gorse blancmanges.
The shortest day; a bell in a glass of wine. More gorse. Out of office: The bracken and the gorse have taken me until January 2023.
Daydreaming of a dog called Gorse.
Daydreaming of a horse called Gorse.
Whistling at the owls and the owls whistling back.
Happy new jumper to the dog — finished her stripy polo neck with about 20 minutes to spare of the year. In time for her to wear out the garden gate and onto the windy moor a couple of minutes to midnight. Popped a cork and watched the fireworks of Plymouth and beyond on the horizon (sausage for the dog). Back into the warm of the burning wood, and a quick Auld Lang Syne on the concertina.
A weird and perfect walk, just me and Nettle in the woods.
Hairy curtain crust, my first ever jelly ears, King Alfred’s cakes, and a rotted-out, chopped down tree, distinctly similar in shape to a marrow bone with all the marrow sucked out.
Pinch point; a hop over an already-trampled fence. Slab of Victorian floor tiles, presumably from the station that was here once, and hasn’t been for a very long time.
The dog snuffled around a brown glass bottle I originally assumed to be the normal fare of a woodland drinker; doubling back and closer inspection revealed a beautiful ridged glass Jeyes Fluid bottle of some age. I wonder if she can smell all the gardeners and their sheds, both now collapsed into the ground and eaten by the soil they once tended, in the gardens of grand houses that aren’t here either. The bottle is plugged with mud, and a root grows out of the top. I squirrel the bottle into my bag and very soon afterwards lose my way — the clear paths I want to be on somehow suddenly behind fences or insurmountable piles of dead wood. I think of piskies, imps, pookas: whether by moving (and removing) the Jeyes bottle I have disturbed a balance and invited their mischief.
Paris through the mouth: baguette with onion squash soup; baguette with apricot jam, and again and again; baguette for the cleanup of the moules marinière.
Tarte flambée, and another, and then again with apple.
Choucroute garnie (no sausage for me) and book meeting life as it does and I love — Leonora Carrington and her ‘sausages in aquariums, sausages in cages, sausages hanging on the walls, sausages in sumptuous glass boxes.’
Galette des rois. I am not the king, but I don’t mind.
Brasserie crème brûlée, two spoons smashing the burnt window of the custard church.
Leaves with shallots and chervil, and the kind of dressing that English people don’t make.
The concept of a croque monsieur debated over several days — tasted only with the mouth of the mind (because fourteen euros for bread, ham and cheese is “a bit shit”).
Plateful of illicit fruit from globetrotting dinnerguest — pineapple, passionfruit, physalis, tamarillo (tree tomato; blood fruit; Wikipedia says she is “egg-shaped”.)
Difficult not to see disorder as auspices; the gold rope chain always worn falling from my neck, a rotted thread spilling blue beads a week later, and my bread seemingly never cooking through.
Smiled at some nuns collecting their Yorkshire Terrier from the vets, and the nuns smiled back.
Pure lunchtime delight in i Camisa, the Italian deli that has stood on Old Compton Street since 1929. I acquire a delicious sandwich in gingham waxed paper and the old woman behind me in the queue buys a kilo of veal cappelletti (baller move). Upon hearing the dog’s impatient teenage protestations outside, both women bustle out from behind the counter (despite a waiting queue of customers) and come to say hello to her, one declaring “what kind of mother would come back without treats?”, having thinly sliced her an enormous waxed gingham platter of deli meat with the meat-slicing machine. It’s the best day of the dog’s tiny life; I don’t think finely sliced meat could have disappeared any quicker if it had been presented to a vacuum cleaner.
Thinking a lot at the moment about the Lambeth council employee who circled all the dog poo bins up on the estate with daffodil bulbs. Nose-joke for the eyes.
Decaying caravan — formica, mildew and true romance: Ben made me a bedside table from ancient duplo, thick plastic winch from a toddler’s crane to hook a camping lamp by which to read.
Substantial orange moths batter themselves against the lights of the 1960s breezeblock bathroom and I try very hard not to be a wimp about it.
Perfect, beautiful bird’s nest fallen from somewhere — horsehair, lichen, blue twine.
A finger-length grasshopper cupped in a hand; the first of many greens, and such a green.
Ruched green swimwear like savoy cabbage at Prussia Cove as I opt for a dip in a warm rockpool rather than trying my chances between rocks and a rough sea. Wrists and ankles wrapped in kelp, and jelly shoes the same brown.
So many more things I meant to write of and in Big Bertha, the crumbling Cornish Caravan, but we were too busy playing hide and seek in long grass, frying sausages on the beach, having silent family feuds. I wanted to remember gum drop sea glass and sea glass cut softly square by the water, as if purposefully for a ring. I wanted to remember the holes we stuck our arms through and joked that we were married now; in the eyes of Barabara Hepworth (River Form, 1965), in the eyes of the ancients (Mên-an-Tol).
Hepworths with bodies crawling through like apples with worms.
Red hot pokers
The pair of buzzards nesting in the wheelhouse tower
A phone surrendered to the sea and another smashed on an ancient monolith.
July entry of mysterious date
Three dead fawns in the road and then one gloriously alive in the headlights, leaping in and out of the hedges. We sit in the car with the lights off for a moment so it may undazzle itself and spring off into the undergrowth.
Hedgehogs, badgers, rabbits and a screech owl like a kettle struggling to boil.
Later, the desiccated carcass of a rabbit at Membury Services, strong long rodent teeth to the wind, ribs naked to the sky, orbital bone bared and staring at the clouds. Something about the bleak concrete and KFC extractor outlet backing onto warren-filled woods…the services that weirdest and most manmade of places, the rabbits rabbiting on all the same.
A strange kind of despair trimming with secateurs the brambles that overshoot the boundary of the front garden wall. I must do it so they don’t spike people, but I do it slowly, kind of hesitantly. I find the remains of the wing of a small bird — perhaps a fledgling pigeon. I see a bounty of fat blackberries and think oh no, that’s much too soon, but also notice and watch for a while several happily munching snails. I learnt recently that snails are known to crawl inside postboxes and eat things: paper, and the glue off stamps. Sometimes Royal Mail send apologetic explanations to the recipients of the snail(ed) mail.
My neighbour walks up the path and offers the use of his heavy duty strimmer, which is kind. I tell him the cord in ours keeps breaking. He says the problem is all these big brambles, gesticulating; I say it’s ok anyway, I will leave the berries for the birds. And don’t you find, he says, when you strim ivy, it makes your eyes and nose really itch? Again, I say, I tend to leave it, it’s good for the bugs. He seems bemused. Bad for bricks though, although I suppose they aren’t your bricks. He walks back down the path, out of where I presume there was once a gate, and says: keep it as long as you like, I hate gardening.
A proper sunday. Nine Elms market in the heat; strong beams on our necks, all the junk and stolen tools and sausages from all around the world, sizzling on hot griddle plates, incongruous under the looming, empty, brand new glass. Assorted Romanian meats heaped onto paper plates by women we look like, with pickled vegetables from an industrial plastic storage box. Mohair dog puppet; shattered celluloid hair comb; antique thermometer with all the mercury run out.
Looming, empty, brand new station swallows us down into the rickety old Northern Line and we are spat within power-walking distance of the Tate, to look at paintings by Mondrian and Hilma af Klint which speak of ether, fluidity, spirit commissioners. I think about Klint’s recent popularity in relation to millennial aestheics; all that milkshake pink. My favourite paintings are very small and very big.
Cherry flavoured gum. Found a grasshopper in the bed.
An acorn dropped out of my shoe.
Can the moon give you a headache?
A spider cascades out of the fridge on a silk. We talk about the word rinky-dink.
My driving instructor applauds my brave taste in socks. I catapult coffee onto the kitchen ceiling.
Frogs are singing in the washing-up water in the drain.
Tiny perished tube mouse — miniature nosebleed, eyes half rolled back like some waxy saint in her ecstasy. Maybe he was a whisker away from God, a heat-freckled banana nearby, in the infernal bowels of the city where I found my dad unexpectedly on the platform, and chatted awhile.
Big orange dog who is known to “walk himself” is unexpectedly at the feet of his owner, enjoying the sun in a deckchair that has been carried across the road to the park. Even more unexpectedly, they share a packet of strawberry laces.
I walk to the fruiterers in the hot and buy a hefty crescent of watermelon.
We swam in a sea that was full of the sky, and on the esplanade, met a dog that was an imperfect double of our own. Her owner asks Nettle’s birthday and says ah yes, I think that makes her a Virgo.
Too hot to sit in the gardens of the Garden of England, but good for the tomatoes which grow fat on flint cottage walls.
Open day at the Montefiore Synagogue. Minton tiles arranged in layered Stars of David; stained glass sun in the very centre of the mausoleum dome — a portal to the sky and to Hashem.
Snuck a hot bare foot out of my sandal and onto a stone step smoothed in the middle by the action of many women’s feet.Candelabras, glass clouds, spilt horsehair.
My mum picks spinach and mustard greens from a garden exploding with cosmos, dahlias, nasturtiums and gladioli, sweet peas, the dog nosing through at her heel.
Later, on the beach, Ben finds a stone that looks unnervingly like a finger and I must absentmindedly put it in my bag, because I find it there later with the receipts and a fistful of sand.
Selected graffiti between Ramsgate and Broadstairs: HAM DADDY in thick pen, and in the soft chalk you can pick off the beach, a face that looks like a potato smiley; a game of hangman in which the word was WOMBAT. There is also a racist bit which Ben scribbles out.
I find a fortune from a fortune cookie, and a pink splot of icecream on my white shirt sleeve.
Everything on the cusp. The big adolescent cygnets who bite each other to get to the bread are essentially now their parents’ size, but wearing the remnants of their dappled baby feathers.
Warm sun in the trees and two squirrels, each carrying a whole apple.
It’s the dog’s birthday. I sing her Happy Birthday and I later find out so does Ben, separately. I don’t think dogs necessarily have a concept of birthdays, but there is certainly something to celebrate in having raised a small, wild and wayward thing into safety and relative politeness.
Conkers in the bike lane.
Autumn Equinox with the dog in the woods.
Dead squirrel like fallen angel with sunken eyes and no tail. Thank the stars the dog’s skill is sight and not scent.
Orange light in a shelter made of sticks. In the spot where we sometimes find things, the one-time gardens of grand houses long gone, the roots have pushed a pleasingly shaped piece of ceramic out of the soil, which I dig out with a twig and put in my bag.
The dog and I stand together in the hallway in the small hours, watching a slug eat a dog biscuit that has been dropped onto the floorboards.
Determined winds in the trees and the chimney pots and the washing line. A coat blown into a gooseberry bush.
Lemon meringue pie in Totnes. Back via Ashburton where I buy some horn-handled French knives, some mixed jars of buttons, and Ben buys me a mohair scarf the colour of glacé cherries.
In the alley behind a butcher’s shop, five or six jackdaws hop around, including one in the meat trolley.
There is a miniscule antiques shop where everything is in cascading piles, and it smells like time. The owner presses Egyptian artefacts, still-lustrous Roman glass, into our hands, and we all marvel at their age. This is a proper antiques shop, he says, all the silver is solid and all the artefacts are ancient. Moments later I watch him pour the end of a can of ginger beer into a random antique before throwing the can in the bin.
First drive where I have to stop for wildlife, moorland ponies clopping gently in the road, one of them inspecting our right headlight for a while — or perhaps checking that my L-plate is on straight.
A Sunday trip to Greenwich to meet H & L, Nettle looking like a funny little detective in the coat she hates wearing (but which she needed against the rain), the collar sticking up. We pretended she was driving the DLR, which we don’t get very often and is still a novelty.
A walk through crunchy orange leaves in Greenwich park, as long as the daylight would allow, and then pub, pizza (nice). Stroll back along the Thames in the direction of the Cutty Sark (which I’ve never seen before) and everything is weirdly misty and quiet, like a 1950s film involving a pea souper. We talk about birthday parties at the Millenium Dome in the year 2000, and copper bottoms on boats. I see the green laser cutting through the sky from the observatory like an alien ray. What the hell is that?! I say, and Harvey replies: Time.
We stray onto the foreshore briefly and I somehow spot in the dark, slightly lighter and straighter than everything else, the stem of a clay pipe. It is both unremarkable and magical, the clay smoothed by the silty river, the mystery of the mouth from which it last hung and when.
On the bus to the train we pass Love Lane, and I think about how we’ve been beating love’s bounds together seven years today. Lucky seven.
Stripy-jumpered dog sits on my lap and watches the landscape change out of the window, sniffing the air as we pass through allotments, orange woods, Chislehurst, Orpington, overgrown concrete station building, Knockholt, golf course, Tonbridge, High Brooms.
In Hastings we have zero degrees and new friends with small glasses; 1890s sleeves and pies and matching bags and cheesy leeks.
A dad getting off the Victoria line at Brixton kisses his small carried daughter as if he loves her like the world. Behind him on the escalator I see he is wearing a small pink backpack which says on it Horses are a girl’s BFF.
We accidentally stay up until 4am hanging glass swans and spheres and violins; cups of tea and cinnamon and cardamom buns next to fruit bowls full of baubles.
Thurs 21st Dec
A man who is doing some work in my mum’s garden asks me if the dog is related to some dogs who are her grandparents. When I say yes he remarks that she has her grandmother’s eyes.
Later I think about how similar a shape his name (Gordon) makes to the Yiddish word for garden (גאָרטן, gortn).
Three times shoes and socks off and into the sea to retrieve a frisbee the dog has dropped in there intentionally. The final time is the final straw: convinced it’s a lost cause while three women walk over to watch like it’s some kind of spectator sport. As I give up looking and slip my toes into my sock, I spot it, throw the socks into Ben’s hands, run with an adrenaline I have never known and fish it out, triumphant. The frisbee is no longer allowed on the beach.
Nine wretched hours in the car, crawling down the motorway in torrential rain. The rain has made the garden stream into a river, which snatches the parcel box and redistributes its contents around the village. A rare children’s book Ben has bought because the dog in it looks like Nettle has to be pressed of water, and a neighbour walks a stranded doll back up the hill a few days later.
On New Year’s Eve, a single lost glove on the village green, unravelling around the fingers where it has been inquiringly chewed by Dartmoor ponies.
Storm Henk blows the roof off the station.