Griff Rhys Jones – “Rivers”

I’ve been watching Griff’s TV series Rivers, so I was thrilled to read on the Mostly Books blog that he was giving a talk in Abingdon. Of course, by the time I read about it all the tickets were sold out, but I had a phone call yesterday morning – some tickets had been returned and did I still want to go!

griff1My thanks go to the person who returned the tickets – it was a great evening. Griff was up and running as soon as he was on stage – entertaining, funny and oh, so knowledgeable. So many facts spilled out of him with boundless enthusiasm and all without any notes. Griff explained how he came to do the TV series and how the producers like him to be “in jeopardy” – if you’ve seen any of his TV programmes, you’ll know what he means, from dangling on a cradle whilst cleaning windows of a New York skyscraper (his hairiest moment) to swimming the River Mersey, in danger of getting Weil’s disease when he fell straight in the sewage going underground with the team maintaining Manchester’s waterways, and kayaking in a canoe slalom on the River Derwent.

Griff is passionate about rivers and opening them up for people to use. He wanted to make a series about the landscape and how it is used – the waterways of Britain are the ancient transport routes only superceded by road and rail relatively recently. The rivers are there to be used, navigation rights that have been extinguished should be reinstated so that we can all use them. He also wanted it to be about the history of rivers – telling how the monks were the first people to use the rivers, creating the water meadows to irrigate the land, how people settled near rivers, how the towns grew up, how they were above all working rivers, and how we have lost our ancient connection with rivers.

griff21I bought his book – Rivers: a Voyage into the Heart of Britain, which he explained is not just about the TV series but is full of stories. I  joined the long queue waiting for him to sign it. I was almost the last person in the queue, but he was still cheerfully smiling and signing! I asked him how long it had taken him to write the book. He paused and screwed his eyes up whilst he thought back, “Well I started it in November … and had to have it finished by … February”, he said. “And then it was edited down, it was much longer than it is now.”

Well, that wasn’t very long to write such a detailed, hefty book, which looks  fascinating, complete with line drawings, maps and colour illustrations. I’ve only dipped into it so far, but here is an extract conveying the beauty of our rivers:

Down beyond Sudbury the River Stour closes in. It slinks through a perfect English landscape: Essex to the south, the much more mythically rural Suffolk to the north. “Suffolk” sounds eggy, buccolic, lost and lazy. Essex is equally as good, just not so equally named. I glimpsed wool merchants’ ochre or pink half-timbered hall houses. I slid into great mill ponds. There were plenty of startling grand churches, some paid for out of the profits of the local weaving industry, some like Stoke-by-Nayland, by rich medieval aristocrats. But mostly, despite the hard-won navigation rights, I was alone, hemmed in by tall banks of reeds, picking my way through over-hanging willows, negotiating passage rights with arrogant swans.

Frequently a stretch would open out with bullrushes standing up on either side, below whispering aspens. The way was clogged with waterlilies in full bloom: buttercup-coloured buds the size of small fists, and open petals like dishes, lying on flat floating leaves. The water itself was clear and waving with green cabbage-like undergrowth that ceaselessly, yearningly, writhed in the current. I could see right down to a river bottom reflecting sunlight off mother-of-pearl freshwater mussel shells. (page 277-8)

As well as meeting Griff I also met Annabel from Gaskella, who was on the stall selling books – she has the good fortune of having Mostly Books as her local bookshop. She’s also written about the event – see here.