George Eliot called it the Floss, put a mill by it and peopled it with the Tulliver family. Upriver she sited a Mudport widely held to be Gainsborough. I was enthralled. For me the tale she spun there, first read at twelve (in this alone I was precocious) eclipses Middlemarch, said by wiser heads than mine to be her opus mango. I still read The Mill on the Floss, every decade or so – something I’m given to with books that fired me as a boy. (Coral Island is another such, as are Huckleberry Finn, Quiet Flows the Don, Narcissus & Goldmund and The Tin Drum; all devoured before I turned sixteen, though I’d switch seamlessly between the highbrow stuff and masters of story telling like Dennis Wheatley.)
How could that final scene not be branded ineradicably on any young mind? Sister and brother reunited in the face of death by drowning; Tom’s stony refusal to forgive Maggie’s night – of passion? – with Philip Wakem, disabled son of the Tullivers’ bitterest rival, dissolved in endless rains that see the river rising, floor by floor, to cut off all escape routes bar their tiny, matchstick in a mill race row-boat …
Cheesily sentimental? If you say so. And certainly not to modern tastes, but for me the scene further intensified when my O-level English teacher, surprised at my having referenced it in an essay on an altogether different topic, let me in on the Floss’s true identity.
She called it Mudport. We say Gainsborough
England’s alpha rivers flow mainly in the south: Avon, Great Ouse, Medway, Thames if we’re generous, Severn – above all the Severn – and, when it deigns to wander in from Wales, Wye. Up north we have only the Trent. The Mersey is little more than a trout-stream till it sniffs the salt of the Irish Sea. With Tyne and Tees it’s a similar story while the Humber only inspires awe – and bridge building – when, swollen from the north by Ouse and Yorkshire Derwent, from the south by Trent and Don, it widens at Faxfleet for a seamless entry to that shallow tea-stain of a channel formed 10,000 years ago, an eye-blink on the timescales geologists play with, by the southward land grabs of the North Sea. Land grabs by sudden inrush or sly scope-creep – we may never know – but either way severing all terrestial ties to the continental mass we now call Europe.
An early Brexit, we might say. But I digress.
As boy angler I was mesmerised by the Trent, visited by chara from Wadsley Bridge where, on Sunday mornings still dark, Sheffield foundrymen and steel rollers boarded: all wellies, flat cap and donkey jacket; wicker basket over one shoulder, rod bag the other. One or two, a small lad like me in tow, found themselves obliged to fend off as best they could the banter of mates less encumbered.
T’missis pleaded wi me to tek im – but I’m on t’promise terneet, tha knows!
What did I know of being “on the promise”? The fact of hearing my dad theeing and thouing with his fellows, when at home such talk stood only marginally above outright swearing on the scale of being common: right common, was novelty enough for my young mind to compute.
Depending on venue and fare, those charabancs drove two to three hours before dropping us in clusters at pegs along our bankside of choice: in Lincs the Witham or a legendary drain; in far-flung Cambridgeshire, Ely or the Glen at Surfleet; in Notts the Trent. So was I initiated into the significance of names on waters other than the Trent, names passed reverentially from father to son, and in the fifties marking for such men the edges of lived experience: Hubbert’s Bridge, Five Mile House, North Fortyfoot .. Stixwould and Swineshead .. Three Mile House and South Fortyfoot. And so did I get to know the Trent itself: the sands and crumbling banks at Fiskerton and Muskham, the roar and sinister pull of Cromwell Weir, swirling sleekness in the current at Newark. That would be the pre-gentrification Newark of rusting jetty, don’t-put-salt-in-your-tea-as-we-can’t-get-it-back-out-for-you greasy spoon across from the castle; a Newark of creamily floating foam, courtesy the politically well connected brewers of upstream Burton. What cared they of the roach, red eyed and silver finned, reeled in by anglers long-trotting quill tip floats, thumbs on centre-pin Nottinghams, to a soundtrack of lorries on the Great North Road? Roach half dead from the yeasty effluents those scummy drifts gave visible form to.
But that Newark has gone, the East Coast Main Line having put it within striking distance for London commuters, reprieving it from the death sentence passed on otherwise similar towns like Boston, Sleaford and Mudport/Gainsborough: market towns once prosperous, now in a grim struggle for survival; their High Streets given over by stealth to charity shop, Polish store and – for a burgeoning underclass of the low on expectation or even hope – smack-converter.
But let me for once not dwell on the life negating qualities of capitalism. Let me just celebrate the majesty and unashamedly personal significance of a river I return to rather more often than I do a tale laden, in the fashion of the day, with moral comment and omniscient interjection from one of Victorian England’s most remarkable women. And no, she was no more ‘George’ than Trent is ‘Floss’, though I guess you already knew that.