Just around the river bend

As previous posts may indicate, I take a great deal of my working knowledge from the life affirming industry that is Disney.
In fact, I might even go so far as to say if it's not being sung by a flying elephant, or spoken by a talking spaniel, then it just ain't worth hearing. It should come as no surprise, then, that I am launching this month's blog post with the wise words of another animated guru; Pocahontas . . .  

“What I love most about rivers is:
You can't step in the same river twice
The water's always changing, always flowing”

. . .Which I would like to draw upon as I explore a popular theme currently running through Sheffield  – the river.

Sheffield Canal, image courtesy Sheffield River Stewardship Company

Last weekend I attended an event to launch The River Commons Project, hosted at CADS and set up in conjunction with University of Sheffield School of Architecture, Studio Polpo, and SKINN.

The aim of The River Commons Project is to invite artists, actors, architects, collaborators, creatives and (it seems) any interested party to explore the stretch of the River Don that runs from Kelham Island to Hillsborough (as well as its surrounding environment). Many of Sheffield's waters are inaccessible, having been abandoned over time or cut off by industrial sites. This project sets out to rediscover the life they have and open them up to the public.
If you want to find out more and get involved, I recommend that you join the flock and follow their flight path on Twitter: @RiverCommons

River Commons Project, CADS Sheffield, image courtesy @RiverCommons

Inspired by the recent resurgence in watery worlds, (there’s also an aquatic affair on at the Millennium Galleries  – Under The Sea runs until 10th June, and, somewhat appropriately shares its title with another favourite musical number from Disney) I have begun to consider the river as a creative entity.

When I lived in London I spent a great deal of time wandering by the Thames. I lived in over a dozen properties during my seven-year stint in the city of smoke, but none of them were far from the water's edge. I remember spending early mornings sitting by the quayside, dangling my feet over the edge of the docks and watching the sunrise over the riverbank. I remember running along the embankment late at night when the stars were out, grappling for a step up to the pavement before the tide rushed in at my feet. I remember sitting on a bench watching the boats sail past, trying to resolve life's dilemmas. Whether I had a problem or a solution, an emotional up or down, the river provided just the right place for me to be. Something about the way the water was 'always changing, always flowing' meant I could return to a familiar place and in it find something new.

London canal, a view from my window
Moving back to Sheffield, my first thoughts turned to the absence of this central part of my life; the Thames. How would I survive with no riverbank to run along?

When Mole declares he's never been on the river, the Water Rat of Wind in the Willows explains the pure joy derived from messing about in a boat:

Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you'd much better not.

The river is a place where time returns to it's elastic state; stretching out and bending back, allowing the mind to wander and pull at itself. It seems to me that the river is the perfect symbol for creative practice, whether it is writing, making art, building, cooking, playing music or gardening. The mind needs to ebb and flow, occasionally gathering in pools and breaking off into streams and estuaries. We chase after our ideas, but somehow they remain “just around the river bend”, and maybe that's what keeps us (and them) moving….

River Commons, image courtesy Studio Polpo

According to The River Stewardship Company of Sheffield, rocks are regularly placed along the rivers of Sheffield to move the currents of water and create shelter for fish. When I heard this, I immediately recognised a parallel behaviour within my own creative process. It is necessary, I think, for obstacles and “rocks” to interfere with the general flow of thought, in order that new paths are taken and new methods employed. Every so often I am faced with a static boulder around which I must divert my journey. It may be something big and concrete, like moving home, or having to work long shifts, or it may be something peculiar and submerged from sight, like losing sight of a goal, or suffering from a creative block. Whatever it is I lose my direction, and am forced to confront the obstruction. More often than not, I must go round it. But sometimes I can take refuge behind it, and gather myself up before continuing in a new way.

All these thoughts slip away from me now as I try to tie them down for you to read. Language is as runny as water, and it pulses through the mind in much the same way – with speed and unfathomable knowing. Things I cannot quite see escape around the corner of my mind. As Ivor Cutler so wisely put it, "Where the river bends, the blind men fall in".

Wandering back home last weekend, on the night of The River Commons event, I felt safe again in the knowledge that Sheffield's rivers were still running – and that in the near future, hopefully, I will find my way to their banks.

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