By ANTHONY HOWELL.
Into what world, then, came such noble savages,
Or the Huguenots, or the refugees, or the immigrants?
They slid beneath the city, shot the bridge,
A risky business in the time of Pepys.
Then London Bridge was crammed with leaning houses,
Chimneys, water-mills and traitors’ heads,
And London’s river seemed indeed a pool.
And if they trudged up Watling Street from Dover,
Gog and Magog stood guard on London’s gate:
The sole survivors of some monstrous brood,
Offspring of the thirty-three hard daughters
Of the Emperor Diocletian. They had murdered
All their husbands; then, being set adrift,
Reached Albion, and there fell in with demons.
Out of their union sprang a race of giants
Seventeen foot high, a plague of freaks
Extirpated by the resourceful Brut.
He only spared Magog and Gog, their leaders.
Led in chains to London, these were taught
To serve as porters at the palace, now
The Guildhall, where their golden-armoured effigies
Have stood at least since the reign of Henry V.
Their oldest figures went up in the blaze
That swept the bridge and burnt out London’s plague.
The next ones came down with the blitz, but still
They stand in their most recent incarnation,
Only nine foot high, but looking Roman,
Now inside the hall. With civic pride,
They flank musicians in the wooden gallery.
And if you climb the spiral stairs within
Wren’s monument, constructed with the cash
Meant for the Great Fire’s orphans, for a view
Of Tower Bridge where the warship lies at anchor,
Or look out west towards Saint Paul’s or north
Across the city’s gleaming glass cathedrals,
Or glance below, at taxis in a jam,
And pleasure boats and launches, tugs and barges
Glimpsed between tall spires, mediaeval buttresses,
Satellite dishes, ventilation apertures,
Then you will sense that Gog and his companion
Still serve London, working now as cranes,
By swinging round prefabricated slabs
Or dropping chains to be attached to canisters
Amid the whine of saws, the clang of metal.
* * *
“Sweet Thames, run softly, till me end I song,
Me quit the West Indies and the journey be long.
I daddy fly a spitfire. He never come back.
I ma, she teach the school, but we living in a shack.
When Mr Clement Atlee be driven by his wife
In a Hillman Minx, we think, this is the life!
When Mr Harold Wilson make a bonfire of Controls
We come to Great Britain to repair their holes.
And when me see the chimneys ranged along the shore
Me say with all them factories no one can be poor.
Though me shiver for I life on the Tilbury Docks
Me think about the lucre me be putting in a box.
But they say, if we admit them dammit that’ll mean
An ever greater influx of Jamaicans on the scene.
So they grudge we our jobs and they don’t let we places,
Because we is we – and they don’t wear we faces.
Thing is that they can’t make head or tail of how we talk.
Thing is that they won’t say good day to we at work.
And if we ride the bus then no one sit beside we,
And they all hide their eye and they rail and they deride we,
And we sleeping in the street, and it hard for we to stick it,
But then me think at least we can beat them at the wicket.
All the sweat of working be to set things up back home,
But it’s more than fifty year, and me still on the roam.
Man, it’s just the women here who make we feel alive:
Had I share of them since the day me arrive.
Ain’t they lain beside we, the smooth night long?
Sweet Thames, run softly, till me end I song.”
* * *
The canine dead wash up on the Isle of Dogs.
___But under that sheer obelisk of glass there
The docks are like capital letters made of water.
___Water and glass… Madonna’s penthouse, Bowie’s…
But “back in the 1840’s most of London’s
___water still came from the Thames,
Polluted by outfall from sewers,
___by stable dung, putrefied sprats and guano,
And by the rubbish and offal thrown into it
___from slaughter-houses, knackers’ yards,
Tanneries and tar works. The colour
___was a greeny black, and its consistency so thick
That each time the tide went down
___a greasy, foul-smelling scum was deposited over the mud.
In 1849 the drainage system –
___if so noisome a collection of leaking pipes,
Uncovered cess-pits, stinking gullies,
___rotting privies and gas-filled sewers
Could be called a system at all
___– combined with the shallow, overcrowded
Burial grounds and a pall
___of smoke-filled, disease-ridden fog
To produce a cholera which could kill
___four hundred people a day.”
I doubt that this affected the robust
___river pirates, or the night plunderers, or the light horsemen
Or the heavy horsemen who relieved
___the overladen game ships of their strap,
And generally went furnished with habiliments
___designed to hide all manner of commodities:
Sugar, coffee, cocoa and pimento,
___carried on shore by means of an under waistcoat
Harbouring pockets all round, and also
___surreptitious bags, pouches, socks
Tied to their midriffs underneath their trowsers.
___They pilfered there in consort with the game
Watermen whose habit was to place
___the oil-casks upside down in their lighters,
So that the oil could seep out
___and into the false bottoms of their craft.
Then there were the scuffle hunters, good
___at taking advantage of spills and disputes.
Meanwhile, on the water side by Blackfriars,
___clusters of mudlarks might be seen
At work where the barges were lying.
___They would prowl about at low water
Pretending to grub for old nanny tails, iron:
___boys and girls mostly, from eight to fourteen,
Ragged, in a very filthy state.
___Sometimes they would get between the barges,
And one of them would lift the other up
___to toss the coal-lumps out into the mud,
Coal they would pick up afterwards,
___and sell among the lowest class of people.
And some were old women who would wade
___in the grey mud up to their knees.
One of these might be seen at Wapping,
___her bonnet tied with a handkerchief,
Picking up coals from the river’s bed
___and putting them into a bag she had:
Coals she would offer for sale in the town,
____wandering barefoot in an old gown,
________her coal-bag balanced on her head.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.
More: This is an excerpt from the title poem sequence in Silent Highway, published by Anvil Press, 2014.