Thames Tales

Last Thursday (September 12th) I was lucky enough to be invited to a talk entitled ‘Thames Tales’ to be given by Professor John Mullan of University College London and the celebrated writer and filmmaker Iain Sinclair as part of the annual Thames Festival. The press release promised an exploration of ‘the role the Thames and its tributaries have played in literature, how they have affected writers such as Shakespeare and Wordsworth and continue to inspire a host of great authors and thinkers today’, a brief that threatened to be as fascinating and meandering as the Thames’s own inexorable passage through London and out to the North Sea beyond.

The talk was staged at the Royal Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower of London, the burial place of such victims of mindless execution as Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, and a venue which, like the Thames itself, maintained a mysterious allure courtesy of a macabre history; a dark allure that no doubt continues to permeate through those unpredictable interstices of time when the light shuffle of tourism gives way to the heavier gait of private contemplation. A venue that Sinclair characterized with acuity as an ‘ark of bone’.

Both Mullan and Sinclair drew on the Thames’s haunting qualities, its role as a repository for both the physical and the psychical, its levelling powers into which identity can be swallowed, but also regurgitated. As Mullan commented, ‘There is nothing that goes into the river that doesn’t eventually come out of it’.

These were qualities of the Thames that resonated strongly with me, having just made my passage to the Tower of London along the northern branch of the Thames Path from Inner Temple via way of the disappeared but still commemorated sites of Baynard’s Castle and Queenhithe, over the submerged tributaries of the Fleet and the Walbrook, through the former trading station of the Hanseatic League beneath Cannon Street station, and on past Old Billingsgate and the old Custom House. It was a walk I had made nearly every day for two and a half years to and from my former abode near Jacob’s Island by Tower Bridge to my workplace at Swedenborg House. A route I had somehow come to refer to myself as the ‘Bevington to Bevington Express’ because at the end of my street there stands a statue of Samuel Bevington, the former mayor of Bermondsey, whilst on the staircase at work, beneath the library housed in the Wynter Room, there is a portrait in oils of Bevington who, in addition to his civic duties, was also a great benefactor of the Swedenborg Society. I missed this walk and, repeating it for the first time since moving houses, I experienced the Thames as just that vehicle to the past that Mullan would describe it to be, a river of memories into which one could dip and pull out both disturbing things and things to be treasured. I also experienced the tug of the Thames that Sinclair spoke of, a sacred ribbon of shifting light which one finds oneself constantly diverted away from and seeking once again (both metaphorically and literally) as one makes one’s paths through London.

I met my erstwhile flatmate and, as dusk encroached, we followed a relay of yellow-bibbed stewards through the grounds of the Tower to the Royal Chapel. We settled into a couple of vacant seats amongst the pews at the back of the chapel and the audience murmured quietly to themselves or spent their time filling in Mayoral-issued data-seeking forms before Adrian Evans, curator of the Thames Festival, introduced the proceedings.

John Mullan spoke first, guiding us with great enthusiasm through references to the Thames in the writings of Spencer, Dryden, Wordsworth, Pope and Dickens, on to the more recent appearances of the Thames in the historical fiction of Hilary Mantel and the lyrics of Joe Strummer. Mullan posited that, for all of man’s availing upon the Thames for industry and trade and leisure, for all of the resulting attempts to manage, maintain and culvert it, the Thames remained an example of natura in urbe, one of the last truly natural things left in London, waxing and waning with tides that, for all of man’s defences and ingenuity, remain ungoverned by human will. Mullan showed how the Thames was both a more benign symbol of escape (from the urban to the rural; from England to the rest of the world), and also a symbol of something more threatening, and he finished by drawing on the close of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, ‘The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.’

Iain Sinclair began by briefly outlining his own background, how he grew up in South Wales and moved to London in the late 1960s. He explained that Welsh mythology viewed London as a sort of Celtic outpost, a city that grew up after the head of the giant Bran was buried under the ‘White Hill’, a place that has been identified as the very Tower Hill upon which we were now assembled. The fortune of Britain would apparently be preserved as long as the head remained interred and a strange congruency can be seen in the similar myth about the monarchy falling if the ravens leave the Tower of London, for Bran is a Welsh word meaning ‘crow’. Sinclair described the Thames as a sacred river and a sainted river that made London a holy place; a place of baptisms and resurrections.

At the centre of his talk Sinclair spoke of Swedenborg’s association with London’s rivers, his brush with death after he embarked at Wapping during his first visit to the city in 1710. Swedenborg had disobeyed strict quarantine rules and would have faced capital punishment had he not managed to call upon connections to important Swedish government officials. And later, in 1744, Swedenborg’s so-called ‘mud baptism’ where, in the midst of a deep spiritual crisis, Swedenborg fled his lodgings at Salisbury Court and, after scattering his money and stripping naked, bathed in the mud of the ‘Gulley-hole’ that might have been a place on the river Fleet. These incidents are covered in Sinclair’s book, Swimming to Heaven: The Lost Rivers of London, which has recently been published by the Swedenborg Society; and it was pleasing to hear Sinclair draw greatly on this work and another book published by the Society, Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime, for the material of his talk.

Sinclair spoke with great lyricism and reverence as he exhibited the significance of the Thames in the work of such diverse writers as Samuel Beckett, the poet David Jones and, above all, William Blake, whom he described as ‘the ultimate river interpreter’ and whose poem Jerusalem should be seen as ‘a set of instructions’ for understanding London and the Thames.

After time for a few questions from the audience, we left, being informed that we had to vacate the chapel before the warders began the Ceremony of the Keys. We crossed Tower Bridge and adjourned for a pint at my one-time local pub, The Dean Swift. I missed my old neighbourhood and thought about how great swathes of the city can seem to close up behind us when we move houses or change jobs, cutting us off also from large portions of our pasts, and rendering us always somewhat rootless. But then, as I made my back to London Bridge station, I passed the statue of Bevington and I realized that that wasn’t really the case and that I could in fact take solace from Sinclair’s words in Swimming to Heaven, ‘There are no disappearances, only reappearances, as we enjoy sudden flares of consciousness and recognition’.

Posted by James Wilson, Librarian & Assistant Editor at the Swedenborg Society

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