José Guerrero and the Secret Life of the Thames (2019)
José Guerrero. Trabajos/Works 02-20
Monography. Edition: UCO + RM, 2019
The estuaries of rivers appeal strongly to an adventurous imagination.
Joseph Conrad, the Mirror of the Sea
You wouldn't think it, but the Thames is a secret river. Great sandbanks which stretch roughly North-East—South-West defend its mouth from anything of greater draft than a Viking longship. Those banks have hard names that sailors fear: Galloper and Shipwash and Long Sand and Sunk Sand and Kentish Knock and Margate Hook and Shivering Sand. Separated by narrow swatchways and gats, and with ferocious tides made worse in particular wind directions, those sandbanks are the real secret of London's wealth. There's something like a 24-foot rise of the tide at springs at London Bridge. Bretons can deal with that, but not many others can. There are few higher tidal differences in the world. If jingoist British historians used to boast that no-one had successfully invaded England since 1066 (barring such trifling visits as that of 1688, for which they could find easier names than invasion), it is really those shoals they had to thank. For a low-lying harbour in a broad estuary, the Thames is ferociously well defended.
Of course, men added to those defences: you can still go and spend a windswept hour on the boulevards of the fort at Tilbury, a wonderful Vauban-like design of pointed bastions more romantic by far than its unpromising location in the flat riverside Essex marsh. The present fort was built in bolt-the-stable-door reaction to a humiliating Dutch invasion of the Medway by a fleet led by Cornelis De Witt in 1667. John Evelyn called that “a dreadful spectacle as ever Englishman saw and a dishonour never to be wiped off”. It was at the earlier fort on the same site that Queen Elizabeth, in the press of the alarum of the announcement of the Armada, gave one of the lauded speeches in the language:
“I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.
I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King — and of a King of England too — and think foul scorn that Parma of Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm. I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”
Parma was Alessandro Farnese, the greatest of a great condottiere family, who made his career in the service of Spain. He's an extraordinary figure: as a young man he fought at Lepanto; and as an old one was the nominal commander–in-chief of the Armada.
The Armada didn't do its work; thanks more to those winds and tides and sandbanks than to any great sailoring. The great fleet was scattered: a wreck from it is one of the attractions of Tobermory, on the island of Mull, and there are others dotted around Ireland. England remained Protestant.
It may be odd to start thinking about the Thames in military terms. It's a great trading river, one of the great ones of them all. The John Company ships, the Australia clippers, the cogs of the Hansa…those are the ships one should really think about on the Thames. But the trade relied on its military strength. The great warehouses of the Pool are all inland from the great shipyards, at Chatham and Deptford, with the huge arsenal at Woolwich: the Thames has its defensive ring, all right.
I said it was a secret river. Fairly recently, a sensitive and leisured generation has opened up the Thames path, not only down the length of the rural stream through Oxfordshire and Berkshire, but right through London, too. The river bank is now accessible, perambulable. Bikes and baby-buggies can take the air along it. Londoners can lean on a wall and watch baulks of timber racing down the tide. Until recently, that was unthinkable, certainly in the great port city itself. The vision of the Tate Modern, for example, the former Bankside power station, thronged with strolling pedestrians enjoying the river, is a new oddity in the history of London. I am old enough to remember when to reach the river front at Bankside you had to trespass through a decaying industrial landscape that remained secret and off-limits.
The Thames had the peculiarity – because of those same tides – of not being a city of quaysides. The path makes it possible to wander – to be a flâneur, in the word so much loved by historians of the nineteenth century. That used to happen in other cities, and in other parts of London, but never on the Thames. Every inch of frontage was a warehouse; with only the narrowest alleys between down to the foreshore. You can still get a hint of what it must have been like in some relict streets of Wapping and of Rotherhithe and of Bermondsey. The Thames was a filthy stream, and crowded beyond anything that we know of it today. Only on exceptional occasions (the waterborne jubilee of the present Queen Elizabeth, the celebrations for the millennium…) has the river anything like the press of shipping it had every day until recently.
Dockers used sometimes to walk from one side of the Pool to the other across the decks of ships: quicker than walking around by the bridge if there was work to be had. But ordinary Londoners knew nothing of that, as they knew nothing of the lanes of Dockhead or Pierhead.
One odd consequence of all this this secrecy is that every Londoner has his or her own private gazetteer of the Thames, secret-places which everybody else might pass by. It has opened up a great deal. The Clean Air Acts have blown away the smoke and smog which used to be its daily cover and the water itself is much cleaner than it was. Seals are regularly seen at least as far as the Isle of Dogs in London, although the attempt to restock salmon seems to have failed so far. Salmon was once abundant in the Thames: eighteenth-century London apprentices went on strike demanding they be fed salmon no more than five times a week. Yet the Thames is still hardly a place of great public water frontages or promenades. For every great palace on the river, for each of Greenwich and Somerset House and the South Bank opposite it and Hampton Court and the mother of Parliaments, there are miles and miles of undistinguished workaday frontage, still today. Brentford Dock is a very Thames-typical place, to me. The canal comes out there, quite far upstream of the twin cities of London and Westminster, through an untidy scrap of boatyards and boatsheds, under a main road. The towpath of the Grand Union canal, which has run all the way from Birmingham and beyond, stops a few hundred yards short of the Thames: a messy little bit of navigation for the commercial boatmen from the river to the first lock. One of the last regular cargoes, once a week by water until the early 1970s, was the order of Seville oranges for the chocolate factory at Bournville. So Brentford, surprisingly, for it is miles inland, was once a port of disembarkation – and there are still improbable Customs notices on the wharf to greet those touching UK soil for the first time there.
That's one of my secret places. Eel Pie Island is another, with the ghost of its Eel Pie Hotel, one of the high places of British rhythm 'n' blues. I never went there – it burnt down before I was old enough; but I went often to its less-louche cousin, the Bull's Head in Barnes. Eel Pie is hardly a great island. Old maps call it an ait, which is more like it. It still has an artist community, not exactly seedy, but definitely on the Bohemian side. As joke-Bohemian places like the mudflat moorings at Cheyne Walk became ridiculous (in price; in pretension; in people), a genuine London Boho would move upstream to Eel Pie if he could. I once ruined the engine in a Volvo 480ES by driving it along the tide-flooded length of Chiswick Mall. I was in a queue of traffic, slowly wading through shallow water behind many other cars doing just the same. Every other car made it just fine; but I didn’t know that the air intake of those cars was very low, between the front wheels. I do, now. So Chiswick Mall became a secret place of mine that day. The Isle of Sheppey is a secret place of a different sort, a curiously beautiful little hill above the mudflats. I used to like the stumpy surviving arm of the Grosvenor canal, under the distinctive chimney of the pumping station by the railway tracks into Victoria. Pimlico Boating Station; the Dove at Hammersmith; the terraces of St. Thomas’ Hospital, Barking Creek and the Bow Back rivers…
All Londoners have associations of this kind with the river. They may not see it for many weeks on end – because one can cross it on the Tube without knowing it’s there. But that sudden catch in the breath from the sheer breadth of sky above the water is familiar to all. It’s not just Wordsworth who found the river startlingly beautiful when the smoke cleared by chance. Monet did, too, and his studies of the light changing over the Houses of Parliament are ‘secret memories’ of many of us. Bill Brandt’s seagull wheeling past the shipping is one of mine, too, and so are the long thin Whistler sketches. Not all secret memories of the river are simply of actual places. Snatches of song count, too. Old bits of conversation.
I like the urban myth that the tidal flood alarm rings when the water level goes into the mouths of enough of the decorative lion’s-head mooring rings. When it was originally told me, it was an actual alarm of some kind. Since then, I find no circuitry but a rhyme:
“When the lions drink, London will sink;
When it’s up to their manes, we’ll go down the drains;
When the water is sucked, you can be sure we’re all ... in trouble.”
It sounds like an ancient vulgar London nursery rhyme – yet the lions can only have been put there after the Thames was Embanked by Joseph Bazalgette late in the nineteenth century.
T.S. Eliot knew all about the secrets of the Thames. In The Waste Land he talks of how ‘it sweats oil and tar.’ But The Dry Salvages, the third of the Four Quartets, begins with a rich passage about the Mississippi, which Eliot would have known as a child growing up in St. Louis:
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder of
What men chose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
The river is within us….
Londoners will recognize that. The river is within us. Perhaps the way to describe it as the subconscious of Londoners. You don’t have to know of the buried rivers, the Neckinger and the Effra and Counters’ Creek and the Fleet which flow down even more secretly to the Thames to understand how the river acts on Londoners as a mix of the individual and the shared. All Fulham fans know about the Thames at their backs; all Millwall and Charlton fans, too — although their bits of the river may not be quite so close. Everybody whose car is lifted high on the giant QEII bridge between Queenhithe and Purfleet gets the view of the skyscrapers far to the west and the tankers moored almost on the mud below. Yet those very public vistas, the obvious ones, are not the ones that make up our own maps.
It is this secret subconscious river that José Guerrero tapped into with such sensitivity when he made his series on the Thames, now some ten years ago. Fog, of course, is the prerogative of Londoners. There’s Conan Doyle’s reeking yellow pea-souper, a true industrial smog, choking Baker Street. There’s Dickens’ wonderful tolling death-knell of the repeated word fog itself from Bleak House :
“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river where it flows among green airs and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.... Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”
And film makers have made as much of the fog as they could: Dickens again, seen through the sympathetic eye of the filmmaker David Lean, in the fog curling menacingly around the Medway marshes at the beginning of Great Expectations (1946). If you live there, London isn’t actually all that foggy – not since the Clean Air Acts. But Guerrero wasn’t specially interested in fog; he understood the secrecy of the river, the odd way it has hundreds of thousands of places of private significance compared to its few mighty public, shared moments. Guerrero’s Thames is slowly reclaiming even the great monuments of the trading City. The fog eats away at the sharp edges of things as the mud eats away at their iron. The old stories – What moored there? Why was that ship cut up and then left? – are gradually no longer to be told. Is the mud winning? Or is it just that London, the tidal city, shifts every generation, and the high places of one lifetime are the lost corners of the next? Guerrero’s Canary Wharf, the new, purpose-built international-style financial city risen in the East, hardly looks like a great centre of world affairs. It is just another private place on the Thames. Guerrero found these places like a Londoner. They lodged in his subconscious as Londoners know the Thames can. The true history rolls on down the tide. Only the private remains.