The top 10 books about rivers

The ‘amniotic’ pull of rivers and their sources fascinates Katharine Norbury, who shares her top 10 books of watery inspiration

When I first began to write The Fish Ladder, it was because of a hard-to-describe feeling that I should be travelling upstream, and also that I should be documenting the journey. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for when I first set out; certainly not what I eventually found. I could not have anticipated what I would learn about the human heart – my own, and other people’s. And I can’t pretend to be an expert on rivers. I am an enthusiastic amateur, and my knowledge of waterways is almost entirely heuristic. Having said that, I have been comforted by water all my life.

I know – as Jenny Diski knew before me, when she found herself lulled by the motion of the ship that carried her to Antarctica, that it is possible to have an awareness of water’s “amniotic qualities”, not as a Romantic notion or as a metaphor for the virtues of swimming and so on, but as a very real comfort, marrow-deep, and cellular. This sensation, of being held, or rocked, can be so hypnotic and so very fulfilling, that – once experienced – it can easily lead one to spend a vast amount of time both in, and near, water.

Salmon try to jump to the top of the Could Weir, Selkirk during their long journey up the Tweed river in the Scottish Borders.
Salmon try to jump to the top of the Could Weir, Selkirk, during their journey up the Tweed River. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA

I was drawn to the idea of following a river from the sea to its source in the summer of 2009, in part to give my nine-year-old daughter Evie and I a holiday project. I have never been particularly fond of maps – the idea of them, yes. But not the reality of folding paper into squares in varying weathers. This might sound like a conceit but I think its more to do with the desire to experience life without a filter, through the senses, with as little coming between me and where I’m going to as possible. As an exercise in “mindfulness”, perhaps; or put another way – “being there”. And a river, once you’ve done the initial map gazing, on the floor, at home, will only ever take you to the sea, to its source or up a tributary. This relative lack of choice is relaxing. You can concentrate on any number of things, your companion, the weather, what you want to eat, global warming, coastal erosion, the nature of the universe, or your fingernails if that’s what pleases you, with relatively little else to get in the way.

So to turn to the books that helped bring me to this place – well, I really must start with the river that is traced in turquoise ink across the endpapers of The Fish Ladder.

Highland River, Neil M Gunn

Caithness, Scotland.
Scene from Caithness, Scotland. Photograph: Maciej Winiarczy/Ross Parry/

Highland River tells the story of a young man, Kenn, who has grown up in a fishing village in Caithness, and who returns to his hometown at the age of 30 because he’d never followed “his river” to its source. He caught his first salmon in a well-pool, early one morning, with no more tools beyond his strength, which was minimal, his tenacity, which was terrific, and a barrage of rocks aimed at the fish. School came and went, the war came and went, and Kenn left for university and a research lab. But one day – just like the salmon – the urge came upon him, to seek the source of his river, the source of himself, and he found it in the Dunbeath Water.

The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

The god Pan Wind in the Willows illustrated by Arthur Rackham 1940
The god Pan in The Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Arthur Rackham 1940 Photograph: PR

This is one of the first books I read to myself, and I am as enthralled and enchanted by Mole’s first sight of the river – and his meeting with the Water Rat – today as I was all those years ago. “So – this – is – a – river?” asks the Mole … “The River” the Rat corrects him. “It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other.” Well, why would he?

Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K Jerome

St Vitus’s Dance (now known as Sydenham’s chorea) is the only self-diagnosed illness that Jerome K Jerome didn’t have. His doctor prescribed beer, sandwiches and a holiday … as a result of which three men and an English fox terrier called Montmorency set out in a “camping boat” to sail from London to Oxford. The book still works, to this day, as a perfectly functional travel guide, although laughter diverts the reader. An excellent guide for every serious Thames pilgrim.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Traditional Ugandan dancers at the starting point of the river Nile
Traditional Ugandan dancer, with phone, at the starting point of the river Nile. Photograph: Charles Sturge/Alamy

It too begins on the Thames, with The Nellie, a cruising yawl, as the dream-boat that carries Marlow, employed by “the Company”, as he heads into unmapped territory in search of missing company director, Kurtz. A journey to the heart of our collective subconsciousness.

Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey

This wonderful story of two gamblers has water running through it. Oscar and Lucinda meet on a ship; Oscar accepts a wager to deliver a glass church that Lucinda is sending as a gift to a man he believes to be his rival. The church is to be transported from Lucinda’s factory on the coast of New South Wales to a remote riverbank community in the outback. A tale told in language as bright and sharp as shards of glass. Moby-Dick, Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, and Huckleberry Finn all spring to mind as comparisons in scale and epic grandeur.

Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain, Roger Deakin

Roger Deakin, environmentalist and author
Roger Deakin, environmentalist and author, swimming Photograph: PR

When I first heard Roger Deakin talking on the radio about his undertaking to swim across Britain, I had to check I’d heard him right. His “frog’s eye view” of Britain’s waterways inspired me – as one who had always swum in concrete pools – to view swimming not simply as an exercise but as a mode of transport. It transformed the point of view of a generation of swimmers, bringing us closer to ourselves, and closer to both the land and the rivers that sustain us.

To the River: A Journey Below the Surface, Olivia Laing

River Ouse, Sussex
River Ouse, Sussex. Photograph: Alamy

The stories that draw me closest are traveller’s tales. The ghost of a failed relationship and the ghost of Virginia Woolf, who drowned in the waters of the Ouse, motivated Laing to follow the river from its source to the sea – the opposite direction to many of the writers gathered here, myself included. Laing is an excellent companion: witty, knowledgeable, curious and compassionate.

The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia, Michael Jacobs

Magdalena River, Colombia
Magdalena River, Colombia. Photograph: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy

The photographer Daniel Mordzinski likened Jacobs, who died last year, to a cross between Peter Sellers, Indiana Jones and Don Quixote. An extraordinary man, interested in whoever he happens to be talking to, and a wonderful travel writer, The Robber of Memories is the account of Jacobs’s journey along Columbia’s Magdalena River and a meditation on his own fear of developing Alzheimers. Packed with adventure including a stint being kidnapped by guerrillas, this is a gripping account of an astonishing trip.

A Sleepwalk on the Severn, Alice Oswald

Aerial view of the River Severn winding its way through Leighton in Shropshire
Aerial view of the River Severn winding through Leighton in Shropshire. Photograph: David Bagnall/Alamy

Alice Oswald’s poetry is sublime and she transcends genre with this play in several voices describing a walk along the banks of the River Severn under different stages of the moon’s cycle. The poem is told in the voices of those the narrator meets on the way. I have read it and re-read it so many times my copy is soft as chamois.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Cuneiform tablet with Gilgamesh Flood Epic. Babylonian, c17th century BC. Southern Iraq. British Museum (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Cuneiform tablet with Gilgamesh Flood Epic. Babylonian, c17th century BC. Photograph: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The oldest story ever told, or at any rate, ever written down, was inscribed onto 11 clay tablets around 1800 BC and rediscovered in Mesopotamia in 1853 AD. In 1998, the opening lines turned up in a vault in the British Museum. Rivers run through it, as they do through all the great origin myths. Gilgamesh the king and his companion Enkidu unleash the wrath of the gods when they cut down trees from a sacred forest and float them downriver, as a result of which Enkidu dies. Gilgamesh sails to the underworld in search of immortal life, only to return empty-handed. At the end of his life, the people of Uruk were said to have diverted the Euphrates so that it flowed over the dead king’s grave. A brilliant meditation on accepting the consequences of one’s actions, mortality, the limits of individual human endeavour and the imperative of living in the moment.

The Fish Ladder is published by Bloomsbury

Katharine Norbury

The GuardianTramp

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