Caught by the River

Dark Waters

Michael Smith | 15th November 2011

By Michael Smith.

The following piece was commissioned for this year’s Richmond Literary Fringe Festival and was given its first public reading, by Michael, at the launch party that we hosted together a week or so ago. To hear it read by the author in his distinctive Teesside lilt as our boat cruised down the Thames, the inspiration for the prose, was truly memorable.

When the sun gets low above the estuary, glowing against the fishermen’s huts and the flat walls of the winding alleys, and the same hazy glow lingers round the isle of Sheppey in the distance, I am caught with a strange and familiar sensation of wishing that I could be in all of these places at once, that I could know them all, like this late syrupy sun knows them all, that I could dissolve into its sweet golden gaze.

I think about this, wending down those alleys to the chippy, then gazing out across the water eating my fish supper in its paper; I digest the thought slowly, walking back to the hut, while the sun burns itself out across a lovely red western horizon, lingering in pools that glow like embers across the dark silty spread of the mudflats.

Beyond the hut an enchanted waste stretches upriver as far as the horizon… the indescribable beauty of magic hour on the estuary, the unfathomable and exquisite feelings it evokes; the tide goes out, birds seem to walk on the water, the sea and land melting into each other, caught in the same glow as the luminous rosy sky; strange chunks of concrete rubble, old defenses fallen back into the sea; a high tidemark of innumerable bone white cockleshells; the charcoal black skeletal remains of piers like rotted wooden ribcages or bad blackened teeth peek out of the water, clustered together like Neolithic earthworks, Shore-Henge; these water-lands are wastelands, the ruins of our own civilization, here where the Thames gives way to the sea and the vast blue world beyond…

An off-peak return to Essex, the train track following the lines of force, the vector of escape, a colossal infrastructure of flyovers and feeder roads that spill out from London along the A13 like greedy tentacles searching for food up the estuary…

People speak on mobiles in muscular African languages as the East End subsided and sank into the soggy, forlorn looking marshes of the Essex hinterlands. The rain came down stronger. Hundreds of bright corrugated container units stacked like rusty Duplo bricks sped past the window, hundreds of units full of the stuff that makes the world go round, before it finally comes to rest in the self-storage sheds that sped by the window afterwards…

Gliding by a vast, city-size tumor of depots, oil drums, cool stores, the co-ordinate of optimum transit and distribution, a confusion and crazy sprawl of flyovers, the 24-7, 360º radiation of tankers, freight, white vans, all clustered round the place, or more accurately the structure, where the Thames and the M25 intersect: a bridge arching over the sprawling, inhuman vista, a bridge of such truly monstrous proportions it induces equal measures of wonder and dread.

“Next stop, Grays,” the train’s posh sex android voice announced… an inhabited settlement in the thick of all this, called Grays? I’ve got to get a look, I thought, and jumped off the train prematurely, into the pissing rain, and a nasty argument between a methadone addict with hands like shovels and a weaselly slip of a ticket inspector.

I saw a sign for “Grays Beach” – Grays Beach? You’ve got to be kidding, I thought, and followed the signs to a little path that led down to a totally deserted sandy kiddies’ play area nestled below landlocked oil rig structures that were either architecture or industrial technology or both – funnels and power grids and enormous cylindrical drums dwarfed a spider’s web climbing frame, a pirate ship, damp sand, and nobody at all to be seen. Kids actually grow up here, I thought. It seemed incomprehensible.

The low sub-base rumble of the Chinese super-freighter bringing in all this year’s Christmas junk slid into dock like a shifting tectonic plate; I scrambled down to the shore to get a better look – although, I don’t know if the word shore accurately describes it, it was more a bank against the waters almost entirely made up of tango bottles, diamond white bottles, all the plastic by-products of the petrochemical complexes in the background. The river seemed dangerously high, like it wanted to burst its banks and wash all this away, a natural corrective to our wasteful ways: if we’re a kind of virus, we’ve clearly gone full-blown – at some point, something will have to be done about us.

I eventually ended up back at the station. It was raining, just like when I arrived. Grays is always gray, Rainham is always rainy, Mucking is always mucky.

Foulness, Gravesend, Shivering Sands, Roach Creek… names that stalk the nameless, primordial darkness that haunts the estuary, that permeates this landscape like a mildew, a damp that gets into the joints, the very bones of the place… it all only heightens the sense of a terrible and awesome mystery being revealed in glimpses.

“Thames” meant “Dark Waters” in the ancient language – dark ancient artery of a dark and ancient empire; dark majestic river god who’s chosen race once ruled the earth. “The Thames has known everything,” said Rudyard Kipling; I wanted to know the Thames; I wanted to follow these Dark Waters, wanted to know them in all their changes: watery wildernesses, bleak container ports, windswept Edwardian seaside piers; dark waters all the way back to the Tower of London, gothic, gargoyled, all the way upstream…

Tower Hill: The old offices of the Port of London Authority, a strange masonic ziggurat from the golden hour of empire, the grand old order on the wane, looking out across the docks, governing proceedings with its all seeing gaze.

I decided to jump on a river bus. Sailing under Tower Bridge, the edge of a magic circle that encloses central London, its skyline nestled there inside it like the crown jewels sparkling on the silvery river; the Monument, the Gherkin, the Nat West Tower; to see the city from the water – I got a lump in my throat, thinking to myself: it’s mean, it’s relentless, it grinds you down, but god, I love this city, always did and always will; I’ve loved it more than any friend or any woman; I love this city and I never want to leave it.

Canary Wharf looms into view downriver, raised on its water like some mirage of the future, some fortress city. What’s it winking at? The power behind its pyramids and towers seems far more cloaked and esoteric than the ziggurat of the Port Authority, far shadier than gunpowder, ivory and slaves, the strange cargo of its old docks.

Beneath the steely majesty of its edifices, the suits glided through the sandblasted piazzas like baddie programs in The Matrix. News Corp was up one point. Anglo American was up 2.76. I have absolutely no idea what this means. If money is the god of this place, then the suits are its priestly cast, and their abstract financial operations are the esoteric rites of its high unfathomable religion.

Clouds rise at triangular angles off the blinking pyramid itself – Canary Wharf creates its own weather, just as it creates its own financial storms and cycles. A final rosy sunburst brought golden glints out on the Thames, while the lights of the Leviathan began twinkling – lights on the Millennium Dome, lights on the towers round the blinking pyramid, lights on City Airport planes coming down to land over the sugar factory at Silvertown, big brown mountains of the stuff coming in to dock on supertankers… they open up their cargo doors as they drift upstream, and sundown is saturated with the golden smell of molasses, of sweetness and light, and it seems to me that the Thames becomes the Nile, the Ganges, the World River, and on this World River, glimpses of a World City being born, an emerging estuarine civilization that will eclipse all previous London’s…

I crossed the heaving scrum at Leicester Square, a swirling, churning sea of sight seers, followed the slope downwards, riverwards, did a dog-leg into St Martin’s Lane, under the awning with the light bulbs like the baubles on the trimming of a birthday cake, and instantly I was twenty years old again, fresh faced and entranced, in love with London. “I love living in a place like this, where theatre awnings shield you from the drizzle under a glowing line of big round theatre lights,” I remembered mumbling to myself, in a Tuesday afternoon daydream all those years ago; I remembered London’s exoticness back then, and its enchantment: the feeling of being in a magical other place, back then when it was that to me, when I didn’t know where I was going or who I’d find there and this city was all mystery and promise and future. To be young and in love with London: disbelief was suspended, what went up didn’t necessarily come down, and London seemed like the great good place where everything was possible.

Lost in these memories, hugging the stately, dream-like elegance of the Garrick Theatre’s curve, I wended my way down to the river, as I always seemed to, lost in the folds of the metropolis, lost in the bosom of mother London, while the streets of the West End sloped downhill like tributaries to their inevitable end…

I found my way across Charing Cross Bridge, to sunset on the South Bank beach, the sun a column of burnished gold leaf across the silvery leaden water… A man making a giant sand castle which will take him long into the evening to finish, an obsession; a weather beaten man who looks like his wife left him a long time ago and now he’s way beyond any of that, just him and his sand castle and the London sunset…

I walked along a dirty tide line, mossy stones, Victorian pottery fragments, an old blackened timber jetty, the squawk of gulls winkle-picking in the wet mud, the smell of muddy sea shore… and then it struck me: The Thames is a sea, an eternal sea, the sea where little England meets the brave, wide world; Old Father Thames like Old Father Time, and my time here, or yours, all just eddies in its slow, stately flow; and generations of us come and go, searching for this funny kind of life we look for and find in London.