The Wensum


Early one Sunday afternoon in 2003 I came round in my study at the top of the house with the strong sensation that something was wrong.

The clock said 1.30. I knew I’d arrived at the desk before eight. But try as I might I could get no purchase on the previous few hours. They were a blank. I began looking through the work on the screen in search of evidence of the re-write I was working on. It soon became obvious there was nothing to find.

It had been an unusual year. The previous spring I’d reluctantly taken the train to London to attended a routine meeting – routine in the sense that as a provincial writer for radio and theatre my agent periodically ushered me into the offices of various television producers in the hope that it might lead to some work. These people would invariably admire this play or that and express a wish that more stage writers would consider the small screen before shaking my hand and waving me off back into obscurity.  What made this meeting different was that I walked out with commissions to write episodes for not one but two television series. In the space of a little under an hour my writing career had undergone a seismic shift.

In the next twelve months I wrote from a standing start a dozen 30’ episodes of a new soap, two hour long episodes of a returning series, a 60’ play for radio as well as adapting a novel for Radio 4. And as far as I could tell had survived relatively unscathed.

This particular week had begun with a phone call. A change in the storyline of the soap meant they needed three new episodes ready for recording in a week. I took the call on Monday and delivered the scripts on the Saturday. Sunday began with a request for some last minute rewrites. In the far from normal world of television scriptwriting this was all perfectly normal. So I made coffee, climbed the stairs, and settled down in front of the computer.

What happened next is something I’ve never been able to explain. Some four or five hours went missing from my life.  Unable to find any evidence of the rewrites I called my editor wondering how I was going to explain the lack of pages. But worryingly there was no need to explain. He sounded uncomfortable. Everything was fine he assured me. It was all taken care of.  My thinking was still a little muddy but I knew this was not the way the call should be going.  How could he know things had gone so badly awry? There was only one possibility. I took a deep breath and asked if we’d spoken during the morning. Don’t worry, he said. Just relax. A few moments later the phone rang again. This time it was the head of department telling me to get some rest and assuring me I still had a future with the company.

I later discovered that at some point during the morning my daughter had summoned me to help with her computer. I seemed strange she said, and kept asking her the date. As with the phone calls to my editor, I have no recollection of this conversation. While some automatic reflex seems to have kept me functioning I was absent from the transaction.

The house where I was working was on a new development built on the site of an old laundry on the banks of the River Wensum. In the days that followed I spent a good deal of time down by the water. On the face of it I was fine. But my sense of security had taken a blow. The ‘I’ that inhabited my life – something I’d thought of as fixed and unchanging – had been revealed to be precarious and mutable. With time on my hands I leant over the metal railings, stared at the river and tried to work out what to do next.

The Wensum rises in South Raynham in Norfolk. As spring arrives the waters clear and even in the heart of the city you can watch the shoots of water lilies  reach towards the surface drawn by the rise in temperature and the strengthening light. By June bright yellow flowers have colonised the margins. One day shortly after our arrival in the house I caught sight of something moving in the reeds – something which from the elevated position of the living room looked like the back of a big fish breaking the water.

Assuming this was some spawning activity – perhaps a carp depositing eggs in the shallows – I hurried down to take a look. What I saw shook me. It was as if the river was giving up its fish. Everywhere I looked dark green backs were crowding the water. Huge shoals of bream seemed to pave the water between the banks. The muscular forms of carp and chub shouldered their way to the margins. Pike, bemused by this plethora of aquatic life, cruised like missiles in the clear water. There was something biblical in this largesse, such a profusion of fish that it could only herald the advent of some great catastrophe.

This display of the bounty of the Wensum lasted for two or three days. Then the fish disappeared and the river returned to normal. It didn’t happen again in the 8 years we spent living on its banks. Something must have caused this extraordinary congregation – some change in the oxygen content of the water, perhaps contamination upstream, driving the fish before it as it worked its way down to the city. But if this were the case there were no casualties to speak of – at least none that I could see. The river had simply drawn back a veil to reveal this hidden teeming life. And then just as suddenly let it fall again.

There was no sign of the fish now as I watched the water slip by on its way to the city centre and its confluence with the River Yare. But it didn’t matter. In my current fractured state of mind there was something immensely reassuring in the river’s presence.

A good part of my formative years had been spent by the water. It began abruptly at the age of 12. Telling my parents I’d be back for tea I had cycled out into the country heading for the River Nene. Just downstream of the old bridge at Milton, I was offered a rod and began to catch bleak – a small surface feeding flash of silver so bent on suicide that they hurled themselves on my clumsily wielded hook. I was bewitched. Tea time came and went. The afternoon passed into evening and I still couldn’t tear myself away. Only when it was too dark to see the float did we abandon the river and cycle home.

My parents would become familiar with these moments sick with apprehension as their quiet inward child went missing on the water courses of the Nene. Before it was light I would leave the house and head for the broad reaches fronting the marshalling yards, the warm water outfall of the power station in River Lane, or the dangerous mill race at Orton. For me life began once I’d reached the water.

Part of this was easily explained by a growing obsession with catching fish. But it was more than that. In the slow-moving water, the promise that lay below the dark surface, there was a rhythm to my time by the river that perfectly matched my own internal geometry. Even on the days when the Nene seemed emptied of its fish the river remained the place I felt most myself.

In the days that followed my mental absence it struck me that despite my privileged position living on the banks of the Wensum I’d been wilfully blind to the river flowing past my window. It had lain out there beyond the glass, along with the manicured lawns, the flowerbeds and benches, just another element in the desirable landscape of contemporary city living.

But here, up close, there was something familiar and comforting in its waters. Perhaps it is impossible to to have spent so much time with the river during the impressionable years of  late adolescence without something of its magic entering your make-up. Or so it seemed to me then. Something which in the intervening years had disappeared under the demands of work and family life. Whatever the reason I stared into the green underwater calm in the shallows off Old Laundry Court and drank it in.

In time the crisis passed. Normal life resumed. But this glimpse of the healing power of the river would prove significant. Some years later the end of a 25 year marriage and a difficult period in my professional life left me left me feeling I’d lost the sense of my place in the world. I had no clear idea how to find my way back.

And then quite unexpectedly I found myself the owner of a small boat with a base in the extraordinary marshy landscape of the Upper Thurne…

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