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Caught By The River Extract: Bill Drummond On The Damson Fruit
Luke Turner , June 23rd, 2011 08:52

Caught By The River have a new book out, and we're very pleased to present to you an extract where Bill Drummond ponders Nazi uniforms, jam and Peter Cook as he muses on the damson, his favourite fruit

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One of our favourite websites here at the Quietus is the excellent Caught By The River, home to excellent writing on nature, ale, music, fishing, walking... the finer, quieter things in life that we at the Quietus are increasingly partial to. In fact, we like Caught By The River so much that Quietus writers are to be found within its web pages: Luke writes the occasional piece about how bad at fishing he is, Robin Turner was was one of the site's founders, Ben Myers sends postcards down from Yorkshire, and Jude Rogers wrote an excellent series chronicling walks through London. For those of you who cry 'but I can't take a website to the riverbank, meadow, pub or fell, we have good news. The website's second book, On Nature: Unexpected Ramblings on the British Countryside is out now. It's a terrific read, featuring guides to nature watching and foraging for wild food, alongside Tracy Thorn writing about her garden, Stuart Maconie on the misunderstood Alfred Wainwright, and British Sea Power's Martin Noble on the long Exmoor and Dartmoor coast-to-coast walk. Indeed, London-based readers might like to know that on July 6th Quietus co-editor Luke will be at the launch of On Nature having a chat and Q&A with Martin Noble all about his chapter, and his music's engagement with the wild world. More details of that can be found here and at the flier below. So now, sit back and read the On Nature chapter where Bill Drummond talks about his discovery of that sadly neglected fruit, the damson.

On the Road to Damascus, by Bill Drummond

It is normal for young folk to have infatuations with people of the opposite sex, or maybe with their own sex. These infatuations can be with real flesh-and blood people they see in their day-to-day life, or with a film or pop star. You know this, we all know this.

But I seem to have missed out on these sorts of infatuations. Not that my sex drive has ever been less than driven, you understand, and I am as boringly heterosexual as you can get, it's just I've never been tormented with infatuations in a boy–girl sort of way. But infatuations are still something that from time to time inflame my urges and desires. In a non-sexual way, you understand, but infatuations all the same. When I was much younger it maybe was a certain species of fish, say the Perch or Brown Trout, or maybe a bird – my infatuation with the Black Cap lasted at least a decade. But I've only ever had one infatuation with a variety of fruit. And this infatuation lasted almost twenty years. It is only comparatively recently that I may have been getting over it. The fruit in question is the Damson. And I can pinpoint the occasion when it began. It was in the early '80s. My then wife and I were spending a night in a rather dark and dreary hotel in Gloucestershire. We were returning to Liverpool from a holiday in the West Country. We had our evening meal in the hotel. I think we were the only people in he dining room. For pudding I chose the special, without even asking what it was. What was placed in front of me was a small glass dish filled with a creamy, purply substance and a teaspoon. Some sort of up-market Fool, I guessed. A custard-based Rhubarb Fool had been a staple in my home as a child. But on the loaded spoon entering my mouth I knew I was tasting a taste I had never experienced before.

And there is no way I have the literary skills to describe that taste without sounding totally pretentious. But it is definitely the taste highlight of my life. It is up there with seeing The Clash at Eric's on 5 May 1977 for great life-changing moments. After that first taste, nothing would be the same again for me on the taste front. And I am already sounding pretentious. Up until that evening I had never tasted a Damson before, had no idea what one looked like, or even what family of fruit it belonged to. A few months later, we moved from Liverpool to the Vale of Aylesbury to start a new life. Part of the new life was to be able to spend much more time wandering about the countryside, as I had in my youth. Come the first early autumn I noticed in the hedgerows amongst the usual Blackthorns and Hawthorns another odd-looking tree, one hanging heavy with a plum-like fruit. They were somewhat larger than the Sloes on the Blackthorns. However deadly a fruit might look I can never resist the urge to put one in my mouth. And anyway there was no serpent up the branches trying to tempt me, so what could the harm be? Just one bite and I knew it was the same fruit that had been used in the dessert in that dark and dreary hotel. A Damson. And there were thousands of them on this tree. It only took a few minutes for me to fill my haversack to the brim. These initial ones were stewed. They went well with my morning bowl of porridge. A crumble was baked on the Sunday. Over the following two or three weeks I came across numerous more of these Damson trees, in the hedgerows across the Vale of Aylesbury. And nobody else seemed bothered about harvesting this abundant and free wild fruit.

The usual types would be out picking Blackberries, but they would all pass the Damsons by. Did they not know what they were missing, or was my palate markedly different to my fellow ramblers and bramblers? The rest of my family did not particularly share my need for a daily intake of Damsons. But it wasn't just the taste of the Damson, it was the look of the fruit, its blush of pectin on the dark purple skin; the way they hung together in clumps on the bough, almost like bunches of large black grapes. Over the coming year I would mark with a cross on my six-inch-to-the-mile Ordnance Survey maps of the Vale, whenever I came across a Damson tree. The dozens soon climbed into scores and it was not long before there was a gross of these trees marked on my maps. Far more fruit than even a legion of Drummonds could get through.

Then as I was out walking early one September morning I came across a whole field of them. The trees had been planted purposefully in rows – an orchard of Damson trees. But half the trees were dead or dying. And on those still living the fruit was being left to rot. Further on in my morning walk I came across more of these orchards, all in the same state of neglect. This led me to believe that at some point in the not too distant past there must have been a thriving demand for this prince amongst the plum family.

This was all back in the 1980s when there was no Google to type the word Damson into and learn all there was to know and much else beside about the fruit that so fired my passions. Around that time, when I was not off coercing Echo & The Bunnymen or locked in a recording studio with Jimmy Cauty, I would be spending my working time in the Aylesbury library writing and researching. It was here that I learnt the name of the Damson comes from the name of the city of Damascus, the ancient and modern capital of Syria. That it is believed it was around this city, over 2,000 years ago, that man started to hybridise various types of plums and wild cherries to arrive at this smallish, dark and packed with-flavour fruit. The biblical story of Saul, on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, falling to the ground after being blinded by the light and his epiphany and conversion was one that had held a grip on my imagination over the years. I had often wondered when my own road to Damascus epiphany would happen, if not a full-blown conversion of some sort. And when it did, what changes would it make to me? And would I have to change my name like Saul did to Paul or Cassius to Muhammad? Sitting in the hushed library, my mind was often in a state of being highly inflamed. This could be in regard to planning the Ocean Rain tour, or concerning strategies that The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu might take, or writing my half of the Bad Wisdom books. But back to Damsons.

In the extensive local history shelves of the library I learnt the cultivation of the Damson was once a large-scale local industry, an industry confined to only a few parishes of the Vale of Aylesbury and nowhere else in the British Isles. It had begun to flourish when the Victorian railway builders connected the Vale with other regions of the country. But the industry declined rapidly after the Second World War. Once we could get bananas and oranges and all sorts of other exotic fruits from around the globe, it seemed we lost our palate for the many locally grown seasonal fruit. Since then the fruit in those orchards had been left to, if not wither on the vine, rot on the branch. But further reading revealed even stranger reasons for its decline. It seemed this fruit was not only cultivated for its taste but the skins produced a dye highly prized in Luton by the hatters and milliners. You did know that Luton was the hat-making capital of the Empire and the local football team are called the Hatters? If not you should have done, and anyway you know now. But it was not just the milliners of Luton who prized the dye made from Damson skins. Through the 1930s, as Hitler was gearing up the Third Reich, he could not get enough of the Damson skins to dye the uniforms of the Luftwaffe. To think those Heinkels were manned by men wearing uniforms dyed by Damsons grown in the Vale of Aylesbury, as they flew over to drop their notso-gentle bombs.

No wonder the local farmers gave up on their Damson orchards when the rumours of their very special war effort started to spread. They attempted to spread a counterrumour, that the uniforms of our very own Royal Air Force were dyed using their patriotic Damsons, but the damage had already been done. Anything connected to the Damsons was connected with supporting the enemy. In fact Damsons were the enemy within.

But as the orchards were left to die another feral population of Damson trees started to spread and take root along the hedgerows that criss-crossed the Vale. In early 1993 I moved into a small and in-need-of-repair farmhouse. From its south-facing windows I had a magnificent view across the Vale. Surrounding the house were five black-barked trees of little account. Useful to string my washing line between, and that was about it. But in those three or four weeks between the pure white of the Blackthorn blossom and the blushed pink of the Hawthorn blossom exploding down the local hedgerows, these five dark trees burst forth with their large and delicate white blossoms.

It took the appearance of this blossom for me to recognise these five trees to be Damsons. It was the appearance of the blossom in my garden which caused my imagination to start tearing in too many directions all at the same time. In my fevered mind it was all beginning to make sense. Because I had never ventured forth on the road to Damascus seeking any sort of epiphany or even full-blown conversion, Damascus had sent out her envoys to track me down and get me. So over the past 1,947 years since Saul fell to the road blinded by the light, those fruit-bearing trees had been heading west. Century by century they were getting closer to me, arriving at the Vale 170 years before me. And even after they were left to die as traitors in their orchards before I was born, they had started their feral march along the hedgerows until they got to this small white farmhouse on a hillside. Five of them forming a guard around the building, waiting for me to come. And once I entered the house, like a lobster into a pot, they would ensure there was no escape for me. Those five wild Damson trees provided me with all the Damsons I could use. There was a large freezer in my workshop, whose only job was to house my year's supply of frozen Damsons. And then there were the shelves of jars containing Damson jam and the demijohns of Damson brandy. And the handwritten book that I kept to collect all the recipes that I could find that used Damsons in some way – it had the flippant title of ‘Damsons in Distress'.

But if there has been a conversion, I am still waiting to find out what it is. Life marches on; my solitary life in the house lasted a matter of months. There was soon a woman with a swelling belly, followed by the patter of tiny feet and then some more. But, to quote an old colleague, ‘Nothing Last Forever'. Things fall apart and hearts break, and it is some years since I left that house. Driving past it last year, I noticed the new owner had uprooted those five feral and rather useless trees. Maybe their job had already been done. But last autumn I drove out of London, with my youngest son, for a few hours' fishing. We sat holding our rods on the bank of the Aylesbury arm of the Grand Union Canal. The Perch began biting. My son hooked a fine-looking half-pounder. Then while waiting for my fl oat to bob I heard something drop on the ground beside me. Looking down I saw a Damson. I picked it up and popped it in my mouth. The taste was like it was the first time. Looking up, there was a tree heavy with fruit begging to be plucked. Somehow I had not noticed it when we first arrived. I filled my bag and that evening a glorious crumble was made with them. The Damsons have not given up on me yet.

This spring, as the blossoms on all those feral Damson trees across the Vale will be bursting into flower, I will be flying to Damascus, where I will be leading a performance by The 17. The performance will be of Score 328: SURROUND. It will be performed by 100 local members of The 17; each of them positioned 50 metres apart along the five kilometres of Damascus' ancient but still standing city walls. Maybe it is not too late for that conversion.

Postscript: And a rather strange one. I bought the house from an old sailor; he had told me that once he had retired and his wife had to put up with him all the year round, they were finished – she realised they had nothing in common. He also told me how he had bought the house from a comedian he had never heard of, and based on his dealings with this comedian he was one of the least humorous men he had ever met. The name of this not very famous or funny comedian was Peter Cook. It seemed that this Peter Cook's previous marriage had failed due to his heavy drinking and his new young wife was going to save him from his wayward ways by imprisoning him in the small farmhouse on a hill with no ready access to the Soho drinking dens where he had practised his wayward ways. It seems she failed in her attempts. A Peter Cook biography came out while I was living in the house. I was keen to see what mention was made of it in the book. But hardly any was. There was a photo of him in the garden with one of the Damson trees in the background, but it was a mere stripling at the time of the photo being taken. I wonder if Peter Cook ever ate one of the Damsons from those trees, or if he had any sort of conversion on a road to Damascus or anywhere else?

Postscript to the Postscript: I have just read the Peter Cook Wikipedia page to see if it mentioned him living in the farmhouse in question. But there is no mention of it. What I did notice is that he died at the same age as I am now, due to severe liver damage. At least I have not as yet been converted to the bottle. Maybe in time.

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