I don’t suppose it’s ever much good trying to impose a literary landscape upon an actual physical one. The constructs in your mind are neat and finite and only have what you need to recognise the place in question yet when you actually arrive there’s all this extra information that doesn’t necessarily tie in. And so it goes for Graham Swift’s sweeping saga of the Norfolk Fens called Waterland.
As we drove down toward the first show of the tour at a small festival in a tiny town called Reepham (pronounced Reefam with a soft ‘f’) all I could think of was a hazy memory of this novel I had read some 20 years ago. The lock keeper’s cottage – where was it? The lazy sunlight on the sluggish fens, the air of unreconciled and unfulfilled sexual tension, the ancient crones in dilapidated houses by overgrown backwaters. And the small band of misfit adolescents scrambling about the waterways trying to make sense of it all – would they be there somewhere? Where was the bone crunching strong ale and would there be eels involved somewhere along the way? No, as we drove in what struck us was the endless line of holiday traffic. The caravans, the roundabouts that seemed to take 20 minutes at a time, only to lead us to more roundabouts and more lines of caravans through industrial estates and roadside food vans and Holiday Inns and always more caravans. I suppose it’s even worse when the litterary remembrance you search for is one of a flat land with no single point to focus upon. No mountain or bridge, no sweeping steppe or descending ravine. No, just roundabouts and caravans really. I suppose it’s the Norwich of Alan Partridge that’s more relevant these days, which is a pity as I remember really being engrossed by Swift’s Waterland.
But as the weekend unfolded the memory of the book I read so long ago seemed to be to some extent true. We found ourselves billeted out in an old fifteenth century farm house. (where I managed to crack my head numerous times walking between the kitchen and adjoining rooms). Our bedrooms were up steep flights of spiral stairs and there seemed to be rooms and ante rooms that went on forever. Rooms that strangely enough seemed often to be filled with restless teenagers that were polite and engaged as much as any teenagers ever can be. But teenagers that seemed to have their own agenda, their own place to be, which was perfectly predictable as after our show we occupied the kitchen with their parents. Aided by a strange euphoria the result of the first show of the tour coupled with jet lag and a seemingly inexhaustible amount of hospitality we seemed to find the energy to pursue in conversation the type of subjects no teenagers would ever have more than a cursory interest in. So as the they went about their business we went about ours, which seemed to involve music, eating, drinking and endless conversation – or more specifically banter – banter between people I got the feeling had known each other a long time.
Standing in the village square the first night after the show we had pointed out to us the site of a local crime scene. Apparently some enterprising local crims had ram raided the bank in the town square directly opposite the police station (having first thought to slash the tires on the only police car) making their getaway with the whole ATM machine in the truck. This was the sort of activity that was extreme and eccentric and surely worthy of literary inclusion. As the evening descended on a local rapper on the back of a flat bed truck I couldn’t help but look at the boarded up bank and think it was a story lifted right out of a book like Waterland.
And if it was eccentricity we were pursuing the first day of the festival was indeed a strange one. We went on directly after a Thin Lizzie tribute band who were actually pretty convincing and therefore pretty enjoyable. I suppose it is one of the objectives of any covers band to make you feel that they are doing it for more than the financial gain on offer. That they care about the music and want to keep it alive. And if this was the objective then Limehouse Lizzie are doing pretty well. Maybe it’s just music I actually quite enjoy but they seemed to be really feeling it – this was in direct contrast to the band on after us whose repertoire was taken from the Simple Minds songbook. I guess it’s hard to be impartial as I was never a fan and really to take up a stance for one covers band over another is a pretty pointless exercise although one we found ourselves doing repeatedly over the weekend. The strangest thing about the Simple Minds covers band is that a couple of the members were actually in the original group. Hence their name ex-Simple Minds.
And our show? Well that was fine as well and as our friend/ tour booker/driver gently pointed out if a couple of ex members of Simple Minds wanted to call them selves ex-Simple Minds and go out playing the hits then we were really in no position to criticise. Maybe me and Wally should be calling ourselves ex-WPA? Well it seems to be on most of the posters anyway so I suppose the practical necessities of the business are going to stitch you up one way or another sooner or later.
We played in blinding sunlight the first day – cursing the baggage check at Helsinki where they had confiscated my sunblock – and amidst the lost children and impending hen’s night celebrations seemed to be received well. Next day we were down the road in a marquee by an old steam railway yard and the reception seemed as warm and friendly as the day before.
We drove up to the coast and sat outside Cookies Crab Shop feasting on seafood (sadly, the eel was off the menu for the day). We stood around with the locals and drank more as the teenagers went about their arcane teenager business. The weather was kind and people seemed generally happy with our input to their festival. With an open invitation to return we hit the road and as the sun set on a strange weekend, on our subtle jet lag, on the midland hills and some pretty impressive strong ale I was happy enough to sit in the passenger seat listening to Norma Waterson singing 40’s classics and think that, caravans and roundabouts aside, in some strange way, a literary landscape, if painted well and rendered sincerely will probably always survive somewhere, in someone’s heart. Waterland indeed.