Once upon a time Wapping was one of the hidden sides of London. It was a haunt for pirates and navy deserters and drunkards and whores and crazies. It was where the original Mack the Knife would stab you as soon as kiss you. As time wound on, it stayed the same and yet the city evolved around it. Dockyards appeared to serve ever further flung lands and pushed the area deeper out onto the rim of the Thames. Its people became increasingly isolated from the rest of the city, buried in the gaps between the river and the thumping warehouses and twirling cranes that unloaded the first wooden and then steel ships that chugging in and out of London. The Nazis bombed the hell out it, but Wapping didn’t particularly care. Nor did it when the dockyards dried up and the warehouses fell silent and the boats stopped coming, even though it was left even further out on the periphery.
I suspect that’s how it likes it.
But still time changes a place. Riverside apartments became trendy; narrow cobbled streets no longer automatically equalled danger, but instead exuded an old world charm. The old hydraulic pump station that had sat derelict and surly for a generation, was restored and reopened into a swanky restaurant, with dinners squeaked in around the remaining mechanics. The soft pale white of dining sheets and silver glimmer of trendy furniture were offset against the rust smudged workable green of the dynamos. Down in the basement, where the water once ebbed and flowed, in a damply dank room there is an art gallery where light and physical matter fight against legacy for dominance over the space.
Like any other east end gallery space, I’ve gone and been mesmerised by the smartness and beauty and I’ve turned up and been indifferently baffled. Space and light tend to be its preferred themes; images cranked in blackened corners, shapes contracted around golden curves underneath the darkness. Abstract and specific; vague and fixed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
The Wapping Project. I find the name disturbing. Projects are brief and fleeting, defined by time boundaries. Does a gallery-restaurant combo really aim to give the whole area an finite conclusion point?
On the opposite side of the road, there stands the Prospect of Whitby, a pub which claims to be the oldest in London. Meh. So do plenty of others. Certainly, there appears to have been some venue designed for the patrons to come and get inebriated on the site as far back as when fat old Henry VIII sat on the throne. Doubt it was the same place though. Still, it’s a pretty enough place with windows like those from the stern of pirate ship overlooking the Thames. It forms a trio of boozers, along with Captain Kidd and the Town of Ramsgate that hug the river and take their characters from the myths of the oceans.
Tthe river dominates much of Wapping. Stairs snake down the side of these pubs deep into the waters. Once they provided steps to waiting flat skiffs to be punted across to the southern side or up and down the choppy, stinkingly foul waters. Then, someone hit upon the bright idea of dumping bodies into the Thames and these were the easiest, quietest, murkiest access points. Dastardly deeds to be done under the dome of darkness. These days, they’re more likely to be borrowed by film crews and tourists looking for a moody shot of London’s forbidden side.
But the river. The Thames screeches and stinks and swells for attention. This is the true docklands, where the water not the steel towers reign. It binds the people to the city as much as it acts as a conduit from west to east. The Thames flows endlessly, starting out in the rich suburbs and through the even richer centre and out, out into the east where the people live. It carries ideas of Londonness, a definition of us, and yet in Wapping it is only visible in-between the gaps. People were so desperate to be close to it they lived on the very rim. Or alternatively they put up barriers that they were then forced to inhabit, acting as a shield between the majority and its corrupting tide.
Joseph Conrad, by all accounts, used to drink in the Prospect. There’s part of me that’s slightly sceptical about that fact since I walked past a blue plaque for his house in Victoria the other day. It was a trudge, at the end of the nineteen century, from Victoria to Wapping, but in the end, this tale isn’t interested in fact. It relies on fictions, on stories to give it life. You didn’t believe that all of this could be true, did you?
Anyway, so Conrad supped ale in the Prospect with all the low down scumfucks who passed through its blood tattered doors on a nightly basis. Conrad was born in the Ukraine and English may have been his third language, but still he wrote stories with heart, with head and with something to say. His most famous, the Heart of Darkness, was nominally about the congo although a bunch of Americans made it about Vietnam for Apocalypse Now, but it could just have easily been about the Thames. The noble and honest man of Kew sails downriver, fighting the sheer humanity he fails to truly find on the way to a final conflict with a man lost within his own reflected madness in the east, perhaps even in Wapping, perhaps even in the Prospect of Whitby.
Hmm. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Isn’t that the thing about stories, about fictions, that you tell them and then retell them in a slightly different way, with a slight adjustment of the emphasis and then the one single truth can be about everything that’s ever mattered? Isn’t that the thing about life?
Wapping tube station, as it once was before the East London Line became rebranded as part of the London Overground network, juts a little spitefully out of the cobbles and soft red bricks. It marks the exit not only of the first tunnel under the Thames, but the first tunnel underneath a watermass anywhere in the world. That tophatted, cigar chomping Victorian of note, Brunel, burrowed his way from south to north, ignoring collapsing soft soil and clay; letting the Thames flood back up, drowning his men and ruining his equipment. What did he care about lives and wives and children left bereft back home, he was carving history for himself.
His stubbornness was remarkable as it took eighteen years to claw through the three-hundred-and-ninety-six metres. It was intended for horse drawn carts and carriages, but was instantly pedestrianised until the steam propelled engines, which must surely have flooded the narrow stretch with putrid choking black smoke, came followed eventually by the new air-conditioned electric beasts that silently slipped underneath my feet.
Certain north Londoners no doubt consider the fact that the tunnel was dug from the south bank outwards as further example of how desperate their southern cousins are to escape the inferior life on the far bank. I prefer to think of it as the extension of a unifying hand across the waters; a hand that is grasped, but with a slight sarcastic sneer in the doing so.
‘The problem is,’ said the girl with the French accent, ‘he’s just too clever. I’m not used to going out with someone who I don’t feel intellectually superior to.’ I let her talk. Sometimes it’s just easier. ‘God, it’s so much harder going out with someone you actually fancy.’
She had a point. Of course it’s easier to bedazzle someone of moderate intelligence with a sour and quick wit. (‘Oh babes, you totally crack me up you do.’) But in the longterm it makes it harder, not easier, despite the inevitable conflict of two strong minded individuals(‘You’re just a bully. Another bully who wants his own way all the time.’). In the end it’s easiest when the fit is utterly natural and not grounded on a fakery. When the only thing told was the truth.
I thought for a moment about getting on the train and nipping under the river to Rotherhithe. That would be acceptable, I thought. I would be continuing to follow the rails of the East London line. But, I looked over the darkened glass of my specs. It was a gorgeous summer’s day. Walking felt more appropriate. I winked at the station, knowing full well that I’d see it again some day, and headed west for the first time that day; west towards the bridge.
I walked up past Execution Dock; a small strip of water tugged land which was once the place where nautical criminals were sent to repent their sins in the maker’s purgatory. A dedicated court churned the cases, passing the almighty’s judgement down. Those sentenced to death would be hung by the neck off the shore until they were dead, dead, dead and then their stricken bodies would be pinned inside the cold embrace of irons and dangled above the river until the high tide had submerged them and washed away the last traces of their life, thrice.
The execution dock’s most famous victim was Captain Kidd, a Scotsman who made his name and his fortune in the Caribbean mainly fighting pirates and the French as a naval barrage gun and cutlass for hire to the local British administrators. He appears to have managed to get too far into bed with the Whigs who were toppled by the Tories and Kidd sent to hell as a present. Since then, his real life has been rewritten and fictionalised until a myth of high-seas piracy is all that could possibly endure. His life was reimagined to more aptly fit its end.
I briefly stepped out onto a grassy patch next to the lapping river. Boys and girls lay poleaxed by the sunshine, skins crisply turning lobster pink, eyes sharply closed underneath their oversized sunglasses. It was but a brief glimpse of a docile afternoon before I tilted further into the modernist flats cluttering around stream inlets and fortified memories of a forgotten age which dragged the whole area into a different class from the one that fought running battles in 1986 against Rupert Murdoch’s closure of the print works. The echoes of bottles crashing on stone and socialist rights chants as militant as that of the Durham miners had died away; drowned out by rebuilding schemes designed to sanitise.
As I walked, I was reminded of a time I went in the opposite direction. We hiked from Tate Modern on the southern bank across from St Paul’s out to the Mile End home of Matt’s Gallery. From nationalised heroic populist modern art all the way to sub cultural alternativeness filtered through a middle-aged middle-classed appreciatively empty wine glass and the drifting image of the scars on the girl’s forearms. I forget exactly when it was, but for some reason it felt like the world was on pause, as though there was time for lingering and dawdling because in the sunshine life would forver be a holiday, until our final breath had been taken.
And in the moment between times I popped out of a side passage and the luxurious basin of St Katherine’s dock opened out in front of me, replete with its Starbucks masquerading as a dumpy lighthouse. And in front of me, on the far side of soulless Hilton, Tower Bridge cut across the glimmering skyline.
The bridge was a mess of turquoise girders and neo-gothic turrets of plain brick. Tower Bridge arches the river confident in being taller than its surroundings, taller and more imposing that the castle crumpled into the bank from which it takes its name. There are plenty of stories surrounding Tower Bridge. Like the time the number seventy-eight jumped the gap as the ramp began to raise; or when the stockbroker being investigated for fraud buzzed it in his toy plane before flying off north until he ran out of fuel and crashed in flames across the Lake District’s fells; but this isn’t the place to tell them. Tower Bridge is too central for this tale. I was just passing through, after all.
The bridge is, however, a landmark in more than one sense. It is such a iconic symbol of London that the myth of the American millionaire who bought the old London Bridge to span the gorge on his Arizonian ranch believed he was buying Tower Bridge instead still survives despite emphatic denials from everyone involved. But it’s more than this. It’s the point where north meets south; where east meets west. The East End doesn’t want anything further west of Tower Bridge (well, perhaps Soho); the west can stick the rest.
I stood in the middle of the bridge; one foot on either side of the divide so I could look down and see the river churning muck and grime and all the wasted promise that makes it so special. Should we look for divides, I wondered. Or should we just take the city as a whole. Is it too big for that? Or is it just all the places I haven’t been to yet waiting to tell me something; something about themselves and their people and something about who I can become rather than who I have been.
I stepped fully over the gap and smiled. South London. Home again.