One Saturday a couple of years ago, I found myself on a train from Oxford to Charlbury. It was September, my favourite month of the year; the trees were still green, and the air had the residual warmth of late summer. I had my Ordnance Survey explorer map of the area tucked under my arm, on which I’d sketched a rough route through the Cornbury Estate down to Finstock, then on to Witney, where I planned to have a restorative pint before getting the bus back.
I’m seldom happier than when rambling through field and forest. For much of my life, I’ve felt myself to be at a bit of an angle to everything and everyone around me, which of course isn’t unusual. I think most of us feel like the world is a room we can’t quite enter; we are voyeurs constantly pressing our nose to the Perspex. But in the country, there is only outside. Doors open; guards fall. Walking in tandem with a companion or two, feet fall into sync, conversations come and go – sometimes a scarp slope, sometimes a dip. I relish these friendly meanders. They are my way of measuring the seasons, marking the passage of time in small increments, while appreciating that life achieves itself in the minute advances and retreats of light and shade. Sometimes, though, even sociability must be put on hold, and the lonely cloud routine adopted. I was oddly excited at the prospect of an illicit pied-a-pied with the Oxfordshire terroir while my partner was away. Why on earth, then, did I have my I-Pod with me? You may well ask. Surely nothing could be more inimical to the solitary tread? Walking is about listening to the birds, not The Byrds.
Well, I wasn’t tempted at first. I was more interested in scouring the hedgerows for brambles, and gorging on the fat, winey blackberries. But there came a natural point of rest, and, beating the potential fructose high, I lay down on my back in a field, to feel the insects buzzing around me and watch the cirrus drift. Almost automatically, I reached in my pocket and flicked on the I-Pod. There was only one song I wanted to listen to.
The words ‘Nick Drake’ have almost become shorthand for ‘pastoral English folk-rock’. Reclusive, posh and pathologically melancholy, his is the voice of damp copses and mildewed barns, the spectres that haunt the ruined abbey and the Ridgeway. Neglected in his lifetime, he has steadily ascended the ‘fruit tree’ of fame in an afterlife of reissues and peer plaudits. Nevertheless, for me, and I suspect many of his fans, he still belongs in Thomas Gray’s country churchyard, where the anonymous and the unmarked are mourned: ‘full many a flower was born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air’. You can visit his grave in Tanworth-in-Arden, the little Warwickshire village in which he grew up and learned to play the guitar and piano. It’s just south of the M42; the Arcadian lungs of England are often now circumnavigated by clogged arteries. Still, the trees remain, ancient guardians of the dead. No doubt they drip umber foliage onto the stones every October, just as they would in a Nick Drake song. Whether the title of his first album Five Leaves Left is a reference to Rizlas is almost moot. For many, ‘autumnal’ is what he does, and there are ‘falling leaves’ in ‘River Man’; the type that skim millpond surfaces or tangle in the tresses of a Millais Ophelia.
Though I was flat on my back, there were no tendrils of weed and herb in my hair as I floated through Drake’s ode to Betty. In fact, for me ‘River Man’ belongs to a different season altogether. If you peer through those falling leaves, there are rays filtering through the mulch. The song has its own climate. Moderate to fair, the weather of the shires at that final point of high summer when the still-warm air is thick with spores but tinged with the possibility of rain. The very first chord change is a cloud drifting over the sun: the guitar strums a bright C major, but it lasts only four bars before a more sombre C minor nudges it away. Harmonically, these two keys are simultaneously familiar and strange to each other. Their juxtaposition makes a kind of sense, but is still an uncanny surprise to the listener, as though the guitar has slightly detuned itself; warmed skin discolouring as the view momentarily loses its lustre. Quite apart from the circumstances of his death, or his diaphanous voice, much of Drake’s ghostliness lies in these small tweaks that are just within perception, changes of musical shading that relay a little shiver of otherworldliness. Somebody in Tanworth-in-Arden has just walked over your grave.
This is not to say that life is held in suspension here. Much like a river, there is motion beneath the calm surface. The time signature is a loping 5/4, not especially common in popular music; broken into threes and twos, the beats express advance and retreat, a bright patch stalked by a one-legged shadow. This river man may have a limp; the music fills in the parts of the narrative that Drake’s nursery-rhymish, cryptic lyrics omit. Meanwhile, the chord sequence is roaming, vagabond – it refuses to settle. Via that unheimlich C minor, it travels to keys on the distant periphery of C major. Always looking beyond itself, the song is constantly distracted by what the horizon hides; what lies over the line of the ridge, or how the watercourse meanders once it is out of view. That guitar strum is deceptive; ‘River Man’ has nothing to do with campfire homeliness and everything to do with the gentle pull of elsewhere.
Magically, that elsewhere is, of course, here, and the string arrangement (courtesy of Harry Robinson and Robert Kirby) makes this beautiful duality sing. There’s nothing especially English about strings, though we do seem to like them a great deal; much of the most loved classical repertoire from this island is wind and brass-free (Tippett’s Double Concerto, Elgar’s Serenade in E minor, Holst’s Brook Green Suite). I don’t think it is such a stretch to place ‘River Man’ within this lineage, and to link it to one work in particular: Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The Tallis fantasia, scored for string quartet and string orchestra to suggest the antiphony of its Tudor model, sounded both familiar and alien to its audience when it premiered in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910. Though it is rooted in sixteenth-century choral tradition, it rediscovers this tradition in pungent harmonies and rapturous timbres, shades of Debussy and Ravel. Like all the best English music, the fantasia expresses waves of multicultural overlay; the shimmering strings remind us how seductive the atavistic impulse can be, but also how elusive the ancestral voice remains, thinning out into silence.
The sonorities of ‘River Man’ are cousins to RVW’s. Ravel and Debussy are definitely there, in the richness of the harmony; the strings’ warmth is almost erotic, another off-kilter element in a song characterised by Drake’s androgynous, almost asexual quiver. The C majors are spiced with added seconds and sharpened fourths, which push the chords beyond themselves (check out 1:33). Once again, the horizon expands; and yet these slightly alien intervals recall older, modal scales, the ballads and ditties of medieval peasants composing their own river songs. Such push and pull, beating forth against the current, brings L.P. Hartley to mind: the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. It also implies that the present is full of this past, this otherness; that it can come upon us as suddenly as a cloud passing over the sun, a revenant chill that nevertheless leaves little imprint beyond a transitory goose pimple.
And so, I wandered on towards the River Windrush, to the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall, mossy, decayed, and open to the elements. A memento mori at any time, but all the more so after listening to ‘River Man’ in the sun. I felt both here and there, both today and yesterday. Perhaps I too, like Nick Drake, was a ghost, drifting from place to place and time to time. At its best, the solitary country walk allows you to recover your origins in the soil, to become a stem photosynthesising in the shine. But it also gives you licence to be blown across the landscape like a pollen-grain, bound for nowhere in particular, rising and falling with each change of air. Maybe it was that mid-afternoon pint I had in Witney that made me lightheaded; but as I bussed my way back to Oxford, head full of cellos and sharpened fourths, I do wonder whether the passersby could see through my face, on and into the ramblers of the past, and the Englands that flourished at the tips of their boots.