River Lines

A path beside the river Enborne.

During lockdown, I’ve been fortunate to have local countryside to exercise in. One of my favourite places to walk is a footpath through fields beside the river Enborne.

Rivers make handy natural markers; our national and county borders often track them. And while the Enborne is only a few metres wide – a tributary of a tributary – at the stretch where I walk it’s used as a boundary between a farm and a patch of woodland.

At the start of my route, the footpath passes through the wood to cross the river at a small bridge. From there, the signposted path stretches straight ahead across a field – but another one tracks right, following the field’s riverside edge as it wends around to the same point at the far gate.

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Urban geographers have the phrase ‘desire lines’, for when the public spot a shortcut and wear down their own path. Well here the walker is offered two opposing desires – the direct route and the scenic detour.

I’ve been in no hurry these last few months, so the choice has been easy. The river is far more pleasant. As you follow it round, trees lean towards you from the woodland bank into the clear light. I’ve seen damselflies dance, and a clutch of ducklings skirt the river edge. Twice I’ve caught a glimpse of the shy star of the show: the kingfisher who hunts here, dazzling and vanishing in a jolt of electric blue.

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But putting wildlife aside, I’ve become aware of how much pleasure I derive simply from following this meandering line. I suppose it’s because so much of our landscape is defined by more rigid, man-made boundaries: fences, hedgerows, curbs. It feels refreshing to move with this glorious natural irregularity – passing through the small nooks it carves out, seeing a new sweep sketched out ahead of you by the tree line.

A mile or so upstream the Enborne joins the Kennet, which was long ago engineered for cargo with canal cuttings. But such commercial meddling is thankfully absent here, with water barely deep enough to paddle in. The river is left to wiggle contentedly through the landscape, expanding and contracting as it goes.

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Something else I’ve been enjoying in lockdown are the recordings of the oud player Munir Bashir. Born in Mosul, Iraq, he later studied in Budapest with Kodály, where he then settled.

Now I am a novice with Middle Eastern music – an untrained listener. But I know Bashir excelled at the art of improvisation, Taqsim. And I know that when people talk about Western classical music, you sometimes hear the desire lines for efficiency. ‘Taut construction’ is one phrase used to praise. ‘Not a note wasted’ is another (what exactly constitutes a wasted note, I wonder?).

But much like the river path, what I enjoy about Bashir’s oud playing is the opposite of a tight musical argument. It’s a sense of loose unfurling. That’s not to say he isn’t economical – he likes to use short, expressively curved phrases followed by pauses. Often he will repeat a single note, slowly speeding it up to increase expectation, before suddenly breaking away in a run and coming back again. It’s this supremely supple way with timing that I love most of all.

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Bashir’s playing creates fascinating small-scale irregularity, a sense of endless possibilities of variation. I cannot identify clear themes in this music, and cut it up into structural chunks. I couldn’t transcribe and notate it in a way that would do justice to the nuanced gradations of his playing. And I don’t have enough experience of the oud tradition to assess him alongside other players, to sense where he might have done something differently.

But I do enjoy following alongside him. And in that sense, the idea of wasted notes seems as irrelevant as a wasted step.

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