Thursday, August 7, 2008

New Statesman: Time and the River

New Statesman (by Nigel Fountain)

A bicycle ride along the Thames Path spirits Nigel Fountain out of the rat race and into London's past

The stillness of the pigs lingers in my mind. Prostrate, they were in adjacent stalls, snorting sporadically as if disturbed from pleasing dreams, snuffling, belching, deftly manoeuvring vast pink and black and white bulks to get the most exposure possible to the sun. Two enormous, oblivious Rotherhithe pigs, safe from American hog camps and Gloucester Old Spot sausages. Among global piggery, surely the most blessed of their kind.

Cycling the Thames Path on the south side of the river to the Thames Barrier was my friend Polly's idea. For me it was weekday work avoidance and I felt shifty about it. Polly arrived at Tate Modern from Clapham, me from Kentish Town. I was 20 minutes late. She raised an eyebrow. . . .

In front of Edward's manor is Alfred Salter. At the end of the 19th century this doctor pioneered a local health service for the poor, and then saw his beloved eight-year-old daughter, Joyce, die of scarlet fever in 1910. Now a bench supports Diane Gorvin's warm sculpture of the man, contemplating the family cat, and poor Joyce, leaning against the embankment. I picked up on Salter a quarter of a century ago, during the Bermondsey by-election where old Labour died. Salter was used then as a club in the brawl between the Labour candidate Peter Tatchell, the villainous former MP Bob Mellish and the eventual winner, the Liberal Simon Hughes. It was left, farcically, to Michael Heseltine's London Docklands Development Corporation, in between watching the old place and old ideologies fall down, to fund Salter's monument.

My pigs are at the Surrey Docks City Farm, along with sheep, lambs, goats, kids, a couple of noisy cows, hens, a calf with angelic eyes, a black and white cat in a tree, and visiting families, some with pinched faces from 19th-century images of the London poor. Our Mutual Friend describes "that district of the flat country tending to the Thames, where Kent and Surrey meet, and where the railways still bestride the market gardens that will soon die under them". It looked, Dickens went on, "like a toy neighbourhood taken in blocks out of a box by a child of particularly incoherent mind".

See the above page for the full story.

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