Water – meanders

(After the New River – )

After the New River I began to think about water mills. And I received a recovered memory. In Bosnia in about 1969, (not that we knew at the time that it was Bosnia, we thought it was just Yugoslavia, although it was remarkable to see how one village had churches but when we hitched the almost empty road over thickly wooded hills we then looked down onto minarets in the next valley,) in Bosnia we came to a stream in a hill valley which was set with little mills, each no bigger than a garden shed, with wooden walls and roofs of wooden shingles, a dozen or more. When the power of the water is used by one mill gravity restores its strength and then it can be used by the next a little further down, and then when all the mills have taken their turn the water is still there and can be used to irrigate fields and gardens or drunk. Rivers in Greece which only ran for a month or two each year could still support similar little mills because they weren’t commercial operations, they only had to grind one family’s corn.

In India there are still about 200,000 working water mills! thankyou again Wikipedia.

I’ve stopped taking water for granted. The Domesday book records 5,624 water mills in England.

Antipater of Thessalonica described a water mill in around 10 AD then said ‘if we learn to feast toil-free on the fruits of the earth, we taste again the golden age!’ Water plus gravity – he didn’t use that term, naturally, he describes the process in terms of water nymphs jumping on the blades of the wheel – gives us an early image of that ancient dream, a life without hard labour.

Here in Britain there are places where all that remains of once powerful water mills are weirs and sluice gates, constructed to regulate and concentrate the power of the river. In urban areas a battered sign often stands there warning against swimming. the force of the water and the swirling currents below the weir are dangerous, and the power to drown is all that is left from the original purpose. From the age of nine we lived in South Mill House at Amesbury in Wiltshire and weirdly I’ve only just taken into account my personal connection here. Ours was a plain late Georgian house which had belonged to the mill owner. on the other side of the road was the big brick mill on the river Avon and set into one side of it a smaller house, the miller’s. A path led from the road around the mill and crossed the river on top of the sluice. Below the sluice the river was shallow, it flowed over a constructed platform, then dropped abruptly into a mysteriously deep and churning pool below which it resumed its lazy way to Salisbury and beyond, (with long ropes of dark green weed swaying slowly in the current) with bright green oscillations of long strands of water weed. Twice, though it may have only been once, a boy was drowned there, jumping down into that dangerous pool and never coming up.

I tried to find out more about drownings in the Avon at Amesbury and about the history and workings of the mill but instead came across a sensational story: in 1909, just a few yards from our house, the bodies of six children and their father were found. He had murdered them and then killed himself. The mother survived. He is described as a loving father who had lost all his savings in a failed poultry farm. He had been a sergeant in the army and had a small pension. He sent a letter to the vicar which wasn’t received in time asking for forgiveness and requesting that they all be buried in the same grave in the churchyard. But they were buried in ‘the cemetery’. But there isn’t a cemetery. I lived in Amesbury from the age of nine until I went off to college, and it seemed strange that I had never heard a word about this. Of course it was a sensation at the time but then the village seems to have been determined to forget it.

Maybe I was always too thin to swim, though I was quite good at the breast stroke, good enough to be roped into the school swimming team, someone had to make up the numbers. I only remember the humiliation and the cold. I came a poor fourth out of four. Our school was competing against Dauntsey’s, a ‘public’ school. In my mind the pool was long, much too long, and narrow, and on an exposed hilltop, and for what felt like a long part of the race I was swimming alone. It was summer, but the water was freezing.

At that time, in the early nineteen sixties, all gthe secondary schools in Salisbury wanted their own swimming pool, the public pool was no longer good enough. (No more naked swimming in the river by that time. It had always been innocent as far as I know, but what do I know.) A few of us wrote a letter to the Salisbury Journal saying that we felt the money raised for the pool should have been given to Oxfam. My father, who was principal of the College of Further Education, about to become a College of Technology, privately agreed. Like us he couldn’t see why several schools couldn’t share a pool. I couldn’t speak to my father then, I found it impossible to put together a few words of my own to him, but it was pleasing that he admired our gesture; he even found it amusing, I think, that our headmaster, Mr E.E. Sabben-Clare called us letter writers into his study and solemnly tore off the stripes we wore on the shoulders of our blazers to identify us as prefects, or in my case a sub-prefect, and told us that in organising jumble sales to raise funds for the swimming pool our parents had sweated blood. I can’t remember anything else he said. And of course we didn’t want to be prefects anyway. We never acted like prefects. I think it was an honorary distinction given to us for being clever or good at passing exams and for hanging on in the sixth form for quite a long time. By that time I was long out of the school swimming team.

Sabben-Clare was a deeply unpopular successor to Dr Happold, a benign and whiskery presence who wrote the Penguin book of mysticism and liked us boys to swim naked in the river.

One more swimming pool story (though it’s soon after midnight on new year’s eve and I feel suddenly weary, I’ve had two small glasses of whisky to break my three day headache avoidance abstinence and the fireworks are only just beginning to fade) from maybe a couple of years before, when my grandfather, my father’s father came to live with us because he was going down with alzheimers, and my parents or maybe just my father thought that it would give Grandpa a sense of purpose if he gave me tuition in maths since I had woefully failed the mock GCE. He filled out the confusing tutoring – I learnt nothing – with parables, and one he often told went like this: imagine a swimming race. imagine everybody lining up together on the edge of the pool, diving in and racing away. Well, you wouldn’t think it was much of a contest if they all finished dead level, would you? There have to be winners and losers, that’s the whole point. And course I didn’t have the presence of mind to say, oh yes I would, I think it would be a great contest, an amazing race! Sensational! Or, imagine a great football match that finishes three all. Why the penalty shoot out, that cruel duel? why not just give both teams winners’ medals, as they wearily climb and stumble up to the podium, helping each other up, embracing each other, what a spectacle! The tears and the cheers! The rival fans too would embrace and sing.

In movies, swimming pools pools signify crime, corruption and decadence and people that sit about by them or float in them are idle, frivolous, or evil. Gangsters have girls who must pose almost naked by pools and in pools all day long and half the night. People are murdered in pools. They throw each other in fully clothed, for drunken fun or malice. You’d almost think swimming pools were a gift to Obadiah, that he may curse them. See hand baked from locally sourced ingredients 6, water (2), the New River

In Breaking Bad and its prequel Better Call Saul several key scenes take place beside Don Eladio’s pool in Mexico with girls in bikinis in attendance, and at the height of Jimmy’s (i.e.Saul’s) success he hangs out in a pool at some resort with drinks floating beside him pretending that he is living the dream, (we know he’s actually miserable), and into the simple pool at Walter White’s house as well as other props there falls detritus from the plane crash which is caused as a wild side effect of the death of Jesse’s girlfriend from a drugs overdose. Her angry, grieving father is an aircraft traffic controller who fucks up. Like any tragic melodrama, Othello for example, it’s a much better story than a brief plot outline makes it seem, and the detail of the swimming pool is convincing. In one of the often brilliant little overtures before the credits, a lurid soft toy with crazy staring eyes and electric fur spins slowly underwater, in another an artifical eye is drawn slowly towards the filter inlet at the edge of the pool and is sucked into it.)

I love the faded blue shutters on ruinous houses in Greece, and the literal sky-blue of empty window frames. There are no swimming pools in the almost dead villages of Greece, no hard blue concrete rectangles. See Blue(s)

I love the colours of this ruined house in Anavriti:

Inspred by the ruin in Anavriti I wanted some blue in the kitchen, I tried a few, it was hard to get it right, but in the end I settled for a pale sky blue which I iked ok until Rosie said it was kind of baby blue and that made me unsure. Then I thought, what if it were actually swimming pool blue! Horrible thought. A name can change the way you feel. And a friend said she was put off a pleasing paint colour when she saw its name was elephant grey. I guess she didn’t want the elephant in the room.

Here’s the same beautiful ruin five years earlier. The purplish flower is honesty.

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1 Response to Water – meanders

  1. Myna Trustram says:

    Jonny, in a chapter I’m writing about consolation / solace, I turned to the water meadows by the river you write about here.

    Don Patterson’s poem ‘Anemone’ begins,

    ‘In the meadow the anemone
    is creaking open to the dawn.’

    He returns to meadows in another poem, called ‘Solace’,

    ‘in the trampled meadow of your loss,’

    There were meadows on the other side of the river from where we lived, not Alpine but water meadows dotted about with pollarded willows. I had a den in one, a cup and a biscuit tin. They were no longer maintained as water meadows, occasionally cows wandered about. Beyond them were the Sewage Works. I would peer through the chain-link fence at the turntables in the distance and couldn’t quite believe that was our shit laid out on display. Beyond the sewage was the rec. There was a very high slide, a creaking slow roundabout, dangerous swings that might throw you over the top.

    Any solace comes from a sensation deep down under the water, that someone understands how the sadness pierces its way into you; the meadow most likely will recover from the trampling, but your life has been ground right down into the mud.

    By the way, there’s plenty of swimming in pools in Aftersun (not the sort you describe, fairly ordinary ones).

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