Reading Matters: The Fish Ladder and Ynys Las

June and a review of the Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury (Bloomsbury Publishing)

And I’m remembering a time with my first husband out on the Llyn Peninsula – this book (the Fish Ladder)  has made me think of that.

We were young together – we met at school on the stage in a  school play, for goodness sake, aged  13 and 14, daft.

We were no more than 18 and 19 a piece when we set out on this adventure.

We had driven all day together, talking, laughing, playing music, singing out loudly, badly driving furiously out and out, further and further out until the beach came and finally we could drive no more and we had arrived at Ynys Las.

In my memory it was pitch black, no street lighting, an eerie silence.  Wind howling.

The car – an old denim-blue boxy French Renault-  stuttering, sputtering to drive out on the sand but still we pressed on. Goodness knows what we were looking for? Til cold, alone and  exhausted , we fell asleep together in the car wrapped in an old pink paisley patterned  duvet we had thought to bring with us from his home.

O his home – that house on the Mayfields’ estate – that crazy house where he had grown up with his brothers and sisters, mum and step dad – the brown mottled carpets (70s retro circles and colour palette)  the big upright piano for songs and laughter  – the dark wood covered in ash, old fag butts and coffee stains, cup marked – everything cup marked in away nothing at my home had ever been allowed – ever -grimy but faintly thrilling because of it; that low scandi- coffee table where I had once been initiated into a card game so ferocious I left with the skin on my knuckles torn and bleeding, his eldest sister laughing at me her eyes narrow and beaded.

Ynys Las, then.

Away alone together may be the first time – I can’t really remember. But that night we slept deeply in the car side by side, the sleep of the Gods  – enchanted by the bleakness of the beach and the hum of the whirling winds.  In the morning we walked out of the car for the first time and only then understood how fortunate we had been.  And in those cold unspoken minutes we both felt that we had been protected by those sleeping Gods and that our lives somehow had been preserved and given new meaning and intensity in what could have been a very different – frightening – ending.

The beach was enormous and wild – the type of beach on which they used to race the Blue bird.

The sand was white and fine and was blown by the wind in every direction. Behind us sand dunes rose sharply and to the left, tufts of green spiky grass – glass grass – do you remember? – the kind that cuts your fingers deep if you grasp hold of it too tightly – grew in great wisps out from the sand.

And this is what we saw.

The still- smoldering ruins of a gigantic bonfire – the black gnarly wood charcoal-ed by the intensity of the heat, grey ash mingling with the wind blown sand, dancing and shooting back up into the air like any minute the fire would re-ignite and burn deeply.

But who had set the fire?

There was no – one there and in the depths of our enchanted slumber we had heard nothing.

And yet tyre tracks from a myriad number of motor bikes criss-crossed the sands and many, many foot prints danced behind them.

Who was it?

Had they seen us?

Had they laughed at us in our innocence?

Had they talked among themselves to try and waken us and then stopped turned away by some other thing?

And how could we not hear anything when in my mind’s eye I see beach torches lit blood red, held high in the purple night sky, baccanaelian dancing,  drinking, smoking, bonfires, profanities?

Who had kept us hidden and safe?

The sun rose high and bright that morning and we raced to the sea to swim together before heading home to tell our story.

We never found out what had occurred on that night and in its own fateful way that night sealed our life together for the next twenty years bringing four children into the world and a short lifetime of memories before divorce caught up with us at forty and his ensuing heart-breaking early death.

Reading the Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury has brought all this back to me.  That’s the power of good writing.

Which is what this book is: a glorious mix of nature, magic and myth.

It starts as a series of small trips, “sorties” out to the start and end of river estuaries each journey with Katharine (an adoptee adrift) musing on the landscape and the intersection with her life: the commentary punctuated by striking epiphanies

“My shadow! I stood between it and the sun, it flooded from my feet along the earth and, for a little while, I knew I was alive.”

So what is a fish ladder?  Why this title?

Haunted and melancholic this book  follows the author’s journey upstream to her own beginnings.  Broke open by the miscarriage of a much longed for second baby, the book is part story, part mythology, part nature writing and all heart providing for me and the writer,  a series of striking epiphanies along the way:

The book travels through many British locations –  the Llyn Peninsula is found in the chapter on “Ffynnon Fawr” and she writes:

“At its western tip the Llyn Peninsula is like a pointing hand; a solitary finger gesticulates a warning against the Irish Sea, at the place where the tides converge, and this place is known as the Swnt or the Sound. Sometimes the sea is calm but when the tides turn the slabs of water heave alongside one another to create whirlpools and vortices currents that are legendary.”

Legend and magic, folklore and story, myth and the glorious wonder of the natural world all rolled into one and profoundly resonating with my own trip there.

The book has a strange magical quality to it – some parts are difficult to read but this journey is worth reading  and as with all the best stories, a chance circumstance forces Katharine to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago for adoption.

The book is a slow starter but evolves as it continues (like nature, like magic, like us) and gives us the rare and gratifying chance to watch and follow a woman struggle to find her personal identity and grow into her own writing voice.

Last week a friend said that it would take as much effort to view adoption as a good experience as it does to feel it is a negative, giving as it does a possibility for perspective from a higher ground – with no known visible ties or links to individuals –   the idea of alone becomes palpable, more real and from that place to be tasked with the journey back into our heart and our authentic Self and live the life we were born to live – with no markers of obvious connection to anyone, this is one BIG thing.  And like Ram Dass says, from that place:

“We’re all just walking each other home.”

image Rob Bell


I have really enjoyed walking a while alongside this writer, learning, exploring the rivers that run through us.

This is my top pick for June.

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