“When a man tires of London, he is tired of life.”
I was never sure about that oft-quoted comment by Dr Johnson. He wasn’t even a Londoner. He was born in Lichfield in Staffordshire and did not visit the capital until he was 28. Whereas I am a Londoner, born and bred, and though far from being tired of life when growing up, I was certainly tired of my birthplace and made it my avowed intent to quit itat my earliest opportunity, which was when I went to university. There was nothing wrong with my home life; it was just that I hankered after green fields and open spaces, both of which are in short supply in London’s suburbs. I was born in Gipsy Hill (I wonder how long it will be before that culturally offensive name is ‘cancelled’ by the woke brigade) but moved to Tulse Hill when I was two, so I can legitimately classify myself as a ‘Tulser’. Both are perfectly respectable neighbourhoods but neither is in the front line of metropolitan culture.
However, I was not totally immune to London’s lure and fascination. I was a keen student of history and what London has in abundance, possibly more so than any other capital city, is history. There are signs of habitation from the Bronze Age at the earliest known crossing of the river near Vauxhall Bridge, but it was the Romans who settled it, moving their capital from Colchester (Camulodunum) to London (Londinium). Since then, from the Anglo-Saxons to the Vikings to the Normans, through the Middle Ages until modern times, London evolved to what became known at the height of Empire as the ‘capital of the world’. Britain may have lost an empire, but London remains at the forefront of the global stage in commerce, education, entertainment fashion, finance, tourism and communications. It is bursting with historical buildings, parks and thoroughfares, most of which I reckoned I had visited in my teenage years. I had a French exchange, whose curiosity knew no bounds and it was my unwilling duty to show him the sights of my city. On my return visit to France, his family decamped to the Cote d’Azur, where the sights on the beach were much more to my liking.
Thus, having quit the city, I had little inclination to return. The only reason I travelled up to London (always ‘up’, even if it was down, i.e. from the north) was to go to Lord’s or the Oval, either as a player, or latterly, as a spectator. Thus, when my son, who lives in Wimbledon, suggested a visit to the ‘Smoke’, I reckoned it was high time that I revisited the place of my birth. “The best way to see London,” he suggested, “is from the river.” I was in complete agreement. Since mediaeval times, the best and quickest mode of transport in the city has been on water. We boarded the water taxi (this being 2022, they are called ‘uber boats’) at Battersea Power Station and headed downriver to Greenwich.
I am not going to bore you with exhaustive details of all the tourist attractions to be viewed from the river, but some stood out, even to an old hand like me. Battersea Power Stationstands out in more ways than one. In my youth, it loomed over south London, an enormous edifice of 6 million bricks, allegedly the largest brick building in the world, its enormous coal-fired boilers providing electricity for one-fifth of London’s needs. With the slow demise of coal and the drive for cleaner energy, its output steadily diminished and it was fully decommissioned in 1983. Since then, it has continued to catch the eye as a huge monument to the passing of the Industrial Age, slowly decaying, yet resistant to demolition. I was pleased to see that at last it is being renovated and redeveloped for luxury penthouses, bars, restaurants and office units. As indeed is most of east London….but we’re not there yet.
As the uber taxi nosed its way into the middle of the river, powered by shuddering engines under our feet, I called to mind a scene in Robert Bolt’s famous play, A Man For All Seasons. Thomas More has been summoned to Cardinal Wolsey’s palace at Hampton Court to discuss the ‘King’s Matter’, Henry’s desire to divorce his wife, Queen Catherine, in order to marry Anne Boleyn. The obvious means of transport was by water, from More’s home in Chelsea to Richmond, the closest point of Hampton Court to the river. More barters with the boatman for the price of the return fare. The boatman’s grumbles are entirely understandable to those who know the River Thames and its powerful tides. “From Richmond to Chelsea, a penny halfpenny,” he says, “From Chelsea to Richmond, a penny halfpenny. From Richmond to Chelsea, it’s a quiet float downstream. From Chelsea to Richmond, it’s a hard pull upstream. And it’s a penny halfpenny either way. Whoever made the regulations, doesn’t row a boat.” Quite. But these were the days long before trade unions. The fare was set, More was unsympathetic and the poor boatman could do nothing but bend his back against the tide. Not a problem for the skipper of our boat as he gently eased open the throttle and headed down river.
The splendid dome of St Paul’s soon hove into view.Notwithstanding the skyscrapers that have grown exponentially since I lived in London, the sight line of the cathedral from several different viewpoints in the city remain clear and unobstructed, protected by law and building restrictions. Big Ben has now had its mask removed and looks all the better for its renovation and its repainting in gold leaf. The same could not be said of the Palace of Westminster, which forlornly awaits its multi-million-pound refurbishment. As we approached Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, our view was suddenly obscured by scores of tourists – mainly Japanese, as far as I could tell – all leaning forward with their phone cameras held aloft. Through the scrum, I peered for Traitors Gate, and was hugely disappointed to discover that it had been bricked up. How, in future, are traitors going to be handed over to the tender mercies of the Tower’s warden?
By and by, we ‘shot’ Tower Bridge to head downstream to Greenwich. It was on this leg of the journey that change most struck me. I remember watching Winston Churchill’s state funeral on television in 1965 and one of the most moving images was of the many cranes in the docks being dipped in silent tribute as the funeral barge passed by. Today, there are no cranes. There are no ships. There are no docks. They have all been converted into riverside apartments. Very smart. Very desirable. And very expensive, I have no doubt. But just a little soulless, I fancy. No shops, no bars, no cafes, no restaurants, no cinemas, no markets, no nightclubs, no social hubs. I wondered how many properties lay empty as Russian oligarchs fled the country.
Greenwich was our destination, where we alighted to regain our land legs. The place is rich in maritime history, home to the Cutty Sark and the classically elegant old Royal Naval College, designed by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. A short walk up the hill took us to the Royal Observatory, site of the Greenwich Meridian Line (0 degreeslongitude) to check the accuracy of my watch (it was spot-on) and to take in the sweeping views of London, with St Paul’s clearly visible in the distance (of course it was).
Boarding our water taxi for the return journey, the boatman tried to quibble with me about the fare. I told him firmly that the price was fixed at a penny halfpenny and if he continued to haggle, he would be put ashore at the Tower. Of course, I said no such thing; if I had, he would not have understood. He was not English. I know this because, having watched him repeatedly and expertly lasso the boat’s hawser to the mooring bollard (he never missed), I told him as we disembarked that he would make a good cowboy. He looked at me as if I was an escapee from Bedlam.
“Nobody gets your humour, Dad,” my son reminded me, “You’re not at school anymore when your pupils had to laugh at your jokes because you were their teacher.”
He was right of course; even my ten-year old granddaughter has taken to rolling her eyes. “That wasn’t very funny the first time you told it, Grandy.”
No doubt true but I remind her that most male teachers are overgrown schoolboys.
On our way back, the wind got up and the occasional spray rinsed our faces. The mellifluous tones of the BBC sports commentator, John Snagge, came into my ears.
‘Cambridge are taking in water. Cambridge are sinking! Yes, Cambridge are sinking!” It was the 1978 Boat Race. Everybody watched the Boat Race and this one was memorable for the not wholly unheard-of incidence of a sinking. Nobody drowned so it was quite entertaining, even more so when Cambridge were outraged at Oxford’s refusal to re-run the race the following day.
As we passed under Westminster Bridge (still afloat), a poem by William Wordsworth floated into my mind. The former Poet Laureate was more associated with his lyrical ballads of the Lake District, but he did compose this one, appropriately named Composed on Westminster Bridge 1802, and I leave you with its final three lines:
“The river glideth at its own sweet will,
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep
And all that mighty heart is lying still.”