Letter From London: Take Me to the River

The Thames and the Tate Modern. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

One evening last week I walked down to Greenwich under an early evening sky in order to catch a River Bus to Westminster in central London. The shimmering lights on the Thames looked beautiful. It was one of those occasions when you remembered exactly why you loved London so much. The only reason the city was here and not somewhere else on the island of Britain was because of this river. And yet it was one of the most under-utilised parts of the city. How was that? To not embrace it felt shortsighted, risible. Like fat, traffic clogged up each and every artery, the trains and tubes not on strike were over-packed, while the river remained as empty as a country lane. Don’t get me wrong: there was much wrong with it — I can go into that later — but I always like walking to the water’s edge, even when not catching a boat. Just to know it is there is enough when you were born just a sand dune away from water yourself. I will go further. The Thames flows into the North Sea, which in turn flows into the Atlantic Ocean, which in turn meets the Pacific Ocean, telling us everything we need to know about the world being one. Incredibly, the Thames even used to be a tributary of the River Rhine. This was before what became the English Channel. Mind you, they also say we human beings evolved from a sea creature some 540 million years ago with a large mouth and no anus, so of course the Thames feels like home.

A couple of smokers huddled by a street lamp and I could hear seagulls as I reached the ramp for the River Bus. I saw my fourth Arctic tern in a week, squawking at a group of London pigeons as if telling them they were nowhere to be seen on its latest 35,000 km (22,000 miles) round trip to Australia. (Truly.) When I stepped aboard the River Bus, the tern flew away. A lone passenger jet illuminated its flightpath and I could hear its engines across the night sky. This was when I stared back at the Christmas lights on the tall rigging of the Cutty Sark, thinking of that special time one bright and early morning when I caught a two-masted Danish brigantine called Soren Larsen from St Catherine’s Dock close to London Bridge. We had passed this very spot in Greenwich. The artist had been waiting tongue-in-cheek to wave me past. A policeman noticed the artist — everywhere was deserted; it was very early — and approached her to check she was okay. ‘My boyfriend is about to pass this very spot on a nineteenth-century sea clipper,’ she declared. He looked at her again: ‘Are you sure you’re okay, madam?’ he asked. At which point, two masts miraculously appeared around that gentle bend in the river towards Deptford, and the brigantine sailed past, dipping her Ensign as she did so. I could see the artist waving and of course waved back. The Soren Larsen however had just finished circumnavigating the globe as part of an official reenactment of the First Fleet to Australia, and I would later feel a complete fraud when feted and hugged by assembled strangers on the pier at Southampton where the journey for the rest of the voyage crew had several years ago begun.

I could feel the wind on my face and buttoned up my coat. Writing of which, people are starting to wear masks again in London. The rail strikes don’t seem to be having much of an impact, either. This seems in part because Londoners since the pandemic have learned how to work from home. The Thames really did look wonderful, though. Remarkable to consider this wide and confident statement of water has nearly 40 main tributaries, 25 of which are in the London area. (Its source is in Gloucestershire.) Over the centuries, most of these hydrous beauties have been forced underground but when we walk the streets of London, they are often bubbling underfoot.

Port side, we passed Deptford Creek, close to the busy APT studios (Art in Perpetuity Trust) created in an old warehouse by a group of artists under 30 years ago. This was where for example sculptor, drawer and animator Victoria Rance does much of her work when not campaigning for greater awareness on climate change. The deft and brave Wolverhampton-born painter Robert Welch also has a studio at APT, his brush as light as knowingness. Less of a studio man is Rance’s partner Alex Pemberton who has been painting skyscrapers on the Isle of Dogs across the river in various peachy lights over the years. Recently, the police asked him to stop painting his rather exquisite Morandi-like versions of buildings and to move on, presumably because they represented some kind of a security risk. On the starboard side, meanwhile, Canary Wharf and Alex’s buildings felt like New York City as their orange and white nighttime reflections rippled on the surface of the water like a kind of Mammon-on-Thames.

Next, we made our way past the macabre and slightly kitsch floodlit Mihail Chemiakin sculpture of Russian Tsar Peter the Great. This serves as a memorial to the time when Peter the Great lived in Deptford. In what remains a strange thought, Putin and Prince Andrew once visited the sculpture together. This was 20 years ago. We all know what happened to Prince Andrew. As for Putin, last week his warship Admiral Gorshkov was launched with new Mach 9 nuclear-capable hypersonic Zircon cruise missiles and was at that very moment expected to pass through British waters. Oh for the good old days again, I was thinking, of kitsch statue ceremonies, harmless princes, and soon-to-be-reformed dictators. Just then, an intrepid seal — of the aquatic carnivorous mammal kind — floated at speed in the opposite direction. This was towards the former Naval College in Greenwich. It was following the route, as if it had any choice with so strong a current, of Joseph Conrad’s tight opening to ‘Heart of Darkness’ about the horrors of colonialism, in which Charlie Marlow tells some of his fellow seafarers as they pass this exact point of an experience he had on the River Congo. This is not to be confused by the way with another of the great Polish-British writer’s novels — ‘The Secret Agent’ — about an anarchist involved in a plot to blow up Greenwich Observatory. (By Joseph, he liked it here.)

I was really starting to enjoy this. The River Bus was fast approaching Rotherhithe and its old former Scandinavian docks where fresh timber would arrive regularly by sea. You could also smell its memory. Finnish and Norwegian churches remain in the area but the Swedish and the Danish-Icelandic ones have been moved to central London. At that moment, a Spanish boy with an old fashioned teddy bear on board waved at a boat that wasn’t there. I liked this part of the river. I was excited at the prospect of seeing the building where Sands Films still live and breathe. I was offered a long-term workspace there by the inimitable Christine Edzard once. Among other films, Christine directed ‘As You Like It’ and the wonderfully received ‘Little Dorrit’. Her invitation came after I had produced in the building what I discovered to my later surprise were the first ever true motion capture experiments in the United Kingdom. These were done over a period of a few months with the likes of Lyndon Gaul, Tim Kemp, David Lloyd, Ivor Middleton, Kevin Shepherd, Steve Street and both Paul and Noel Donnellon. We were using former military technology and turning into something creative, which was most satisfying and rather like decommissioning a large weapon. This was during the days when I like to say I was mistaken for a digital expert. The last I heard of Sands Films, also to my surprise, was MD Olivier Stockman hosting a screening of a more recent one-person film of mine.

I stared ahead at what looked like darker water. The River Bus was moving at quite a pace now. The intense darkness was probably an illusion, but the chill in the night air felt sharp and real. Talking of sharpness, I spotted in the distance the tall Shard building. On first glance, it looked like a hot-tipped explosion of fire. Perhaps inevitably, on this night of rivers, this got me remembering the Kabul River in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan when I was 24 and filming with a group of Abdul Haq’s men by the water’s edge. We had just schlepped down a steepish mountain, which was why everyone was so thirsty. One of the mujahideen took out a semi-transparent plastic canister with an explosive warhead for a rocket-propelled grenade inside. He slipped this out like a toy and dipped the by now empty canister into the river before handing it to me filled with fresh water like a barman I knew he would never be. I drank it. I did this in one go. We smiled. It tasted of cordite.

Of course, the Thames has its own casualties. Only last week a young man died close to where we were after falling into -3°C water. I also knew a talented Iranian artist called Salman who jumped to his death in the River Thames. When the Chinese poet Li Po drowned in the Yangtze River after falling from his boat when he was drunk one night, people liked to say that he was trying to embrace the reflection of the moon. Maybe that’s what Salman was doing — trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the River Thames. No, it was definitely not all plain sailing here. Like life itself, there are plenty of twists and turns. Massive waste, for example, conspires against the river. There are countless dreary plastic wet wipes, endless bags, and other general waste in and around the river. Food wrappers alone make up a fifth of lightweight items. There are cotton bud sticks, plastic and polystyrene cups, drinks bottles (almost half of which are water bottles, ironically enough). But even more troubling is the re-run of more and more dumped raw sewage. Thames Water for example has on at least one occasion recently been responsible for more than two billion litres of raw sewage discharged over a period of only two days. These leakages are soaring. Pollution for profit, we river observers call it.

We approached the rather magnificent nine-decked Town-class light cruiser HMS Belfast looking moody in the cold water. It was not hard to imagine her letting off some of the first shots on D-Day, as indeed she did, or sailing into the icy cold waters of the Arctic Circle, while escorting convoys with supplies for the people of the former Soviet Union, or indeed serving in the Korean War. We had reached the spot by Tower Bridge where on a previous ride a river crew member photographing the sunset had said t he saw this view every day and still wanted to photograph it. I was also recalling the wicked rumour, I was sure untrue, that when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair met for dinner at the nearby restaurant Le Pont de la Tour, no one in the US Secret Service had provisioned for the fact that any vessel on the river more than 9 meters tall could ask for ‘a bridge lift’. This was because the famous Tower Bridge was — and still is — bound by an Act of Parliament giving river traffic priority over road traffic. Anyway, that night, the mischievous tale continues, a small yacht appeared. Accordingly, the Bridge had to be raised. As a result, our tale continues, members of the Secret Service were separated from each other either side of the river.

The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral now stood out. It was terrifying to imagine the damage wreaked on the city during the Blitz in WWII. One day last week, for example, exactly 73 years ago to this day, 24,000 high explosive bombs and 100,000 incendiary bombs — imagine that — were dropped on London. The area destroyed was bigger than that of the merciless Great Fire of London in 1666. And it was because the Thames that night was at low tide — unlike on the River Bus — that water was so hard for the fire fighters to reach. We were now in front of Shakespeare’s Globe and Tate Modern. I could see a lone figure walking on a tiny and possibly dangerous small patch of stones by some fast-rising water. The river still has its mudlarkers, I was remembering. They are those fascinating people who regularly sift through river mud and stones for objects of aesthetic or monetary value. Nicola White is probably London’s most famous mudlarker. Liz Anderson, who found a hammered silver Henry VII farthing by the Thames only last week, is another. I find it interesting that women make the best mudlarkers, the same way that they make great film editors or succeed better than many men at fly-fishing. Grimly, we were getting close to the site of the Marchioness disaster, where 51 innocently partying lives were lost in 1989. By Blackfriars Bridge, I was now remembering the mysterious death of Roberto Calvi, who was known as ‘God’s Banker’ because of his work for the Vatican. He was found hanging from scaffolding. As we neared my destination, it was like a river smash of narratives. Port side now was the attractively bright red neon ‘OXO’ sign and in what felt like no time at all we were passing under Waterloo Bridge. This was a bridge built by women in the last war and was said to be the only one that ever came in on time and under budget. (The longer I was on this journey the more obvious it was becoming that women should rule the world.) There was so much still of the river to explore. As we approached Westminster, the London Eye was spotted with pink lights. I could see people drinking on the House of Commons terrace by the Strangers’ Bar where I once met recently knighted Julian Lewis MP. He was already working for the Intelligence and Security Committee and I was introducing him to American scriptwriter Marcus Gautesen about the possible adaptation of a book of his. I also remembered a friendly John Whittington MP waving at us. I had last seen him at the Groucho Club with a group of people that may or may not have included a future prime minister’s wife. It really is a small world, far too small at times. I disembarked from the River Bus as Big Ben continued staring down. I had reached the end of my journey.

The Thames will likely still be here long after we are all gone, I was thinking. ‘I bet that river could tell a story or two,’ said a kind old gentleman to me in Greenwich once. His name was Stan. The artist and I had just helped Stan move into a local alms house at the time. To celebrate, he and some friends were gathered around a milk bottle which I was using as a launchpad to let off a series of fireworks. ‘Bloody marvellous,’ said Stan, sucking his last remaining tooth while staring at the explosions reflected in the water. The fact his eyes couldn’t quite reach to the sky didn’t seem to matter to him. ‘I bleeding love that river I do.’

Peter Bach lives in London.