Sounds of the water: Martin Noble

The guitarist with the nature-loving rock group British Sea Power selects the books, poems and songs that connect him to canals and rivers

Illustration: Stavros Damos


Canals and rivers were quite a part of my life where I grew up in Yorkshire. My grandparents lived on Queens Street in Castleford, where my dad grew up. At one end of the street was the Bellamy’s sweet factory and at the other end was the River Aire. Just beyond that, down Lock Lane, was the Aire & Calder Canal. When we visited my grandparents we’d pass by the RSPB reserve at Fairburn Ings and then over the river and canal. At the time, the river was very polluted – chemicals coming down from Leeds. When it reached the weir at the Allinson’s flour mill it foamed up, sometimes six-feet high. Grey suds would blow over the streets – staining clothes hanging out to dry. People would regularly bathe in it and jump from rope swings. Nowadays things have been cleaned up a lot and there are fish in the river and canal. These childhood experiences are probably part of why British Sea Power have become connected with the natural world – wild flowers and moths occasionally feature in our lyrics, while my instrumental The Great Skua is named after the big pirate sea bird that breeds up on Orkney.

A river-themed book I’d recommend is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. It won the Booker Prize in 1997 and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s set in Aymanam, a village amid the rivers, canals and waterways around Kerala in India. The main town, known as ‘The Backwaters’, is Allaphuza, which is a toponym, based on the words for water and watercourses. The story traverses a few generations of a family from 1969 to the 1990s. It’s a vivid, magical world among the coconut trees, water and exotic wildlife. It also touches on religion, the caste system and the “untouchables” – who you can and can’t love. Another water-related book I’d recommend is The Shining Levels by John Wyatt – a superb memoir from a man who lived in a hut in the Lake District, with a roe deer for company. Our singer and bassist Hamilton drew heavily on this book in his song Something Wicked [on 2003 album The Decline Of British Sea Power].

The river song that comes automatically to mind is Messing About On The River, which the Scottish folk singer Josh MacRae wrote in the 1960s. What a tune! It’s a song that everyone seems to know from the womb. I always sing it absentmindedly when near fresh running water. Another song would be Sam Cooke’s anti-racism anthem A Change Is Gonna Come. I just need to hear the first two lines and I start welling up – “I was born by the river in a little tent / Oh and just like the river, I’ve been running ever since”. You can completely feel the anguish in his voice.

I’ve been on a couple of interesting river-related holidays. Last year me and some friends took a road trip down Route 61 in the US, the ‘blues highway’. It follows the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans. We stayed in Clarksdale, the birthplace of Sam Cooke. In New Orleans we took a canoe swamp tour, past alligators and snakes. A massive barred owl flew through the cypress trees and all the eerie Spanish moss hanging down everywhere. Me and my wife Vicky visited Allaphuza, as featured in The God Of Small Things. We stayed with a local family and took a boat out on The Backwaters. There were bee-eaters and multiple species of kingfisher. The father of the household where we stayed had led his local village to win the annual ‘snakeboat race’. The village boat was over 100 feet and held well over 100 people. Beat that, Oxbridge!

British Sea Power’s new album ‘Let The Dancers Inherit The Party’ (Golden Chariot/Caroline International) is out on 31 March 2017. The band tour the UK in April 2017