We used to live near the River Thames, and sometimes on a Sunday evening my husband and I would take a stroll along its south bank, losing ourselves among the gaping tourists, middling buskers, mimes making a living as statues, vendors selling Softee ice cream, and overflowing rubbish bins.
There’s something deeply comforting about melding into a throng of tourists without being one yourself. Perhaps it’s briefly viewing home through their eyes, their eagerness to see the exotic in the ordinary. How the rain and its exigencies (‘macs’ and ‘brollies’ and ‘wellies’) enchant those who will leave it all behind in a few days’ time! I often wonder just how many photos have been snapped of visitors faking calls inside London’s iconic red telephone boxes, shakily climbing the steps of the city’s double decker buses, or posing next to the Queen’s guards who stand rigid as toy soldiers while they await the camera’s click. You’d have to be a crank not to be infected by their delight, if only because it reminds you of your own naïve awe when you too were a new arrival.
Old tube maps give a misleading impression of the river’s shape, and the distances between London’s neighbourhoods. The maps were finally updated a couple years ago, but skewed impressions were already lodged firmly in the mind’s eye. Still, facts are facts: sometimes you’re on the south bank but you’re actually north of buildings on the north side. That’s why you can stand in front of the National Theatre and not see Greenwich to the east or Chelsea Bridge to the west. It’s also why you’d be forgiven for thinking things are closer than they are. The old maps tell us more or less how a crow would fly, but we aren’t crows, are we? We’re people following roads that follow the serpentine logic of the Thames, while we remain shackled to ‘north’ and ‘south’.
Rivers run through lots of cities, of course, and sometimes they’re iconic there, too. The Danube splits Buda and Pest, which Hungarians persist in regarding as a single city, while a French kiss by the Seine surely claims an unassailable place atop any list of life’s most romantic events. Like the Seine’s Left Bank, Trastevere on one side of the Tiber River houses Rome’s colony of artists and intellectuals. Or it used to, anyway, before artists and intellectuals could no longer afford the rent in its higgledy-piggledy streets so they were replaced by bankers who wanted to live where the artists did because that way they weren’t really bankers, were they?
As for the River Thames, the witty guide on a riverboat tour I took with my sister just the other day pointed out Butler’s, the Globe, and A + B King Henry’s wharves, all vital – albeit workaday – structures when the Thames was still a transport route for goods headed in and out of central London. Now several decommissioned wharves have been transformed into luxury riverside condos that fetch a few million pounds and attract the Gordon Ramsay restaurants which bustle nearby. Evening cruises offer three-course dinners, a glass of bubbly and a spin on the dance floor as they slip past those condos’ terraces, leaving in their wake the echo of tipsy laughter above the low hum of engine. An exact replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, opened in 1997, recreates the experience of watching one of the Bard’s bawdy plays in his day, and a seat on the London Eye gives you a bird’s eye view as far as tony Hampstead Heath to the north, and south to the ‘garden of England’ in the Kent hills.
We moved away from the river some time ago, and I miss the way its whimsical logic pushes back against our efforts to decorate it and remake it in our own image. I miss how the Thames humbles London, and keeps us in our place.