Upriver: walking the Thames

As a general rule I don’t walk the Thames. There is so much of it I find interesting, that I prefer to cycle or run along sizeable stretches of the riverside path (or rather paths, so bitty and broken up are they). Since I first lived in London in my early teens, much of the industrial Thames has been opened up to beasts of the two-legged and two-wheeled variety, and the river is considerably cleaner today than it was in the mid-1970s.

I’ve written before about the Rivers Thames and Medway (search the site), and my affinity with this particular region of southern England. In northwest Kent and southeast London one finds a complex mix of urban industry, suburban wasteland and rural idyll, and I appreciate the geographical and cultural contrasts encountered along the way.

My German friend John Carter Wood knows how I feel about this place. He and his life/blog partner Anja Müller-Wood have even joined me on an afternoon driving tour of the Medway region. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to receive from John last week a link to an extraordinary essay in the London Review of Books by London-Welsh writer Iain Sinclair. I may not walk the Thames, but Sinclair does, and his essay is in most part a personal reflection on the river based on experience gained treading its footpaths.

Sinclair’s treatise is ostensibly a review of “Thames: Sacred River”, novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd’s cultural history of England’s most famous river. I haven’t read Ackroyd’s book, though it certainly looks appealing, going by Sinclair’s review and blurbs published elsewhere. My focus here is on Sinclair’s own meditation on the Thames, rather than Ackroyd’s writing, which is mentioned mostly in passing in the LRB essay.

Take, for example, the following…

“The obsessive, neurotic and delusional Millennium Dome concept was a remake of Fitzcarraldo, a film in which suborned natives (expendable extras) drag a paddle-steamer over a steep hill in order to get around an inconvenient bend in the river, the point being to bring Caruso, one of the gods of opera, to an upstream trading post. An insane achievement mirrored in the rebranding of the Dome, after its long and expensive limbo, as the O2 Arena: a popular showcase for cryogenic rock acts, artists presumed dead or missing in action, for Norma Desmond divas and the real Michael Jackson, a trembling skin-graft mask cursed with eternal youth. Parrot-scream arias and the cough of angry engines, as punters try to exit the gridlocked car park, carry across a broad expanse of oily water. Thames, Amazon, Congo: crumbling regimes like nothing better than a rumble in the jungle. A world-class photo-opportunity summit in some hangar on the edge of a dock, between old railway lines and a new airport. A major exclusion zone around a place nobody has any good reason to visit. A geography that only makes sense when viewed from a helicopter.”

With pride I can state that I have never entered this overblown tent pitched on a once ugly brownfield site east of Greenwich. This unpigmented mammoth of a building is sited near my old secondary-modern sink school in Charlton, which has since been rebranded as a prep-college for overseas students wishing to read for law and business degrees in the UK.

Though I’ve never been inside the Millennium Dome/O2 arena, I have while passing by attempted to imagine what goes on inside the cavernous structure, which from the outside smells of grilling meats. My fantasies very closely match Sinclair’s description of this Temple to the Kebab.

“The reimagining of downriver stretches of the Thames was not limited to East Greenwich: fantasy settlements were imposed on vacant brownfield sites along the floodplain in Essex and Kent. Every act of demolition, every fresh-minted estate, required a recalibrating of history: as a hospital or asylum vanishes, we thirst for stories of Queen Elizabeth I at Tilbury or Pocahontas coming ashore, in her dying fever, at Gravesend. The documented records of the lives of those unfortunates shipped out to cholera hospitals on Dartford Marshes, or secure madhouses in the slipstream of the M25, can be dumped in a skip. Politicised history is a panacea, comforting the bereft, treating us, again and again, to the same consoling fables.”

There is indeed a degree of politicisation in popular histories of this area. But at least those inventing such histories are actively engaged in rejuvenating a patch of land that had died a death, and which local residents managed to largely blank from their collective consciousness. The dome may be a blot on the landscape, but better that than a bloody great hole in the ground.