Tom Cox: the 21st-century Yokel

Best-selling author Tom Cox talks about his memories of rivers, and the books and music that have inspired him over the years

Tom Cox: the 21st-century Yokel


Rivers have played a part in author Tom Cox’s life since he was a child, growing up in Nottingham close to the River Trent, but it’s taken a while for him to fully explore the theme in his work. Before turning to nature writing, Tom worked as head rock critic for The Guardian, then penned a series of autobiographical books about his beloved cats, his entertainingly overbearing dad, and an account of his year as Britain’s most inept golf professional.

More recently, Tom’s droll rural reportage for The Guardian led to his acclaimed autobiographical collection 21st-Century Yokel (2017), which the multiple-award-winning nature writer Robert Macfarlane describes as “[treading] a clever, winding path between humour and a true love for landscape.” Now, Tom’s appreciation for rivers and nature blends into his latest book: a collection of ghost stories called Help The Witch.

I grew up in Nottinghamshire and used to visit the River Trent quite a bit as a kid. It was always a great place to have a look around. I did once go fishing with my Uncle Paul but it wasn’t really for me. I think I was worried about the fish too much. My dad grew up on a council estate in Nottingham and remembers watching the old canal being filled in at Wollaton. His neighbours, this huge Irish family called the O’Dohertys, used to bring loads of the fish home. They had a pike in their bath at one point.

I’m really into river swimming. The River Dove, in Derbyshire, was my first swimming river, a river with very strong connections with fishing [through the celebrated 17th-century angler Izaak Walton]. After swimming in the Dove I just became really keen on swimming in rivers. I moved to Norfolk, to a house where the front room had a trapdoor down into the River Yare.

I moved to Devon where I lived about two minutes from the River Dart. I’ve seen quite a few otters on the River Otter in Devon, but I’ve only had a brief, fleeting sighting of an otter on the Dart. My friend, however, had a wonderful experience with an otter on the Dart. She was meditating on the bank and she looked into river, seeing what she thought was her reflection. Then, all of a sudden her reflection grew fur and whiskers. She realised it was an otter breaking the surface of the water about an arm’s length away from her. There are also some amazing pools on the Dart up on Dartmoor. There’s a story in my new book Help The Witch called ‘The Pool’, which is like an altered version of those particular pools. That story is about how a feeling of darkness can be created by an incident at a place – all of a sudden there’s an atmosphere and a place becomes seen as haunted.

One of my favourite water related books is Waterlog by Roger Deakin, which has become a really well-loved book and rightly so. It had a big effect on me, partly because I was living in Norfolk at the time – I read it and then realised he was talking about places near me and that he lived two villages away. I’d been a quite a good golfer and had written books about the golfing world. But by that point I was falling out of love with golf and falling in love with nature, and Waterlog was a key turning point for me. Another favourite water-related book is the novel Empire Falls by Richard Russo, which won a Pulitzer Prize. He writes warm, funny books about small-town America. There’s a line I love in the book that says something like: “That’s the thing about rivers. In the end they get their way,” which I thought was really profound.

I love loads of river-related music too. I’m a big fan of the music of Randy California and his band Spirit – classic psychedelic and progressive rock from the late 1960s onwards. A lot of their songs are water-themed, such as ‘Water Woman’. I write about Randy California in 21st Century Yokel, because he was an obsessive swimmer, an amazing swimmer. There are so many river-related songs that I love. ‘River Song’ by Dennis Wilson, Marlena Shaw’s version of ‘Let’s Wade In The Water’, ‘River Man’ by Nick Drake. The list is dozens long.

21st-Century Yokel is available now from Unbound. Help The Witch is published by Unbound in October 2018. You can read more of Tom’s writing on his website.

Alan Baker