Old Father Thames, tamesis, the tidal monster – did you know there are thirteen rivers in London? No, Thames, only one, only one we know about only one worth the name of river. Oh there’s the Serpentine, the Isis, named for Ishtar, goddess of the pagans (do we see a connection between Ishtar, goddess of fertility, and Eostre, festival of fertility, and Easter?) they’re there, somewhere, but it’s the Thames that stands as synecdoche for London. The Thames that divides the city, the Thames that was once the boundary between London and Surrey, distinguishing the capital from the licentious pleasures to be found in Lambeth marshes, where the whores lived (‘sarf o’ the river, squire? At this time of night?’).
For centuries the muck-rakers have worked the banks, scavengers for treasure once and salvage, now for broken pots and treasure of a kind, artefacts of the past, a slate from a Roman roof, of a pipe once smoked in a Restoration tavern. It’s all there if only you’d see it.
Better left where it is. What would you do with it?
But here now. The sun comes in low in the mornings, beaming in below the cloud strata like a bomber limping back from a dawn raid, coming in below the radar, the weak watery sun sidling beneath the stonewashed sky, and glinting here and then off droplets. There is a beauty to it, a terrifying beauty of shit and silt, a flat colour between grey and brown, spars of detritus held up in the quicksand grip of bankside mud. Have you seen the black of a starling’s wing? Then you know the colours that don’t exist, the ones that a single tear of rain can offer for a moment’s glimpse, all and none. The river basin is on fire, white light fire and crimson hell and yellow peril and then you turn your head. Gone.
The flat bed of the Thames. Beauty comes from unlikely places.