The idea of London owns me rather than me owning it.
I was born in Bermondsey and brought up there in Dockhead. I left when I was eighteen. It was 1970. The Pool of London docks closed and my father’s work moved to Essex. So did my family. We discovered the A13 and the eastern suburbs, which before 1970 might as well have been in China for all we cared. We left our car-less, pedestrian life, our cramped council flat, our relatives and our lovely but grubby London of the 1960s. We moved east. I left London wanting to figuratively spread my wings, to literally live in a modern house, drive a car, shop in supermarkets, to travel and see my own country. Well, I saw it, and other places too. But I discovered on returning that the city has been on its own journey. London has left me too. What happened to that world of stewed black tea, bread and dripping, small shops run by people who had been to school with my parents or grandparents? Where did all those working men on the street disappear to? What happened to that dominating Irish Catholic church in Dockhead? The nuns and priests, the parading of the Virgin in the streets? Did I dream it all? I recently began a photo essay in Bermondsey and will be posting more pictures. Of course I’m using a modern digital camera, and I won’t be taking pictures of moody streets and smokey skies. They’ve long gone.
This opening picture is taken from the north side of London Bridge. We are looking down at where the wharves once faced the Pool of London. In my childhood it was full of ships. My memory is of tubby freighters wallowing in mud, tugs, barges, cranes, smoke, fog, cobbled streets, flat-bed lorries, tarpaulins, wheezy uncomfortable buses, bacon sandwiches and mugs of tea. My father worked on the waterside here. So did many of our relatives. My great uncle drove a crane on New Fresh Wharf – the quay in the foreground of the picture. From the mid-14th century until the early 1970s that was a wharf.
We were a traditional working class family of sailors, dockers, railwaymen and the like. I was brought up within a large extended family, with cousins in years above and below me at school and grandparents and great aunts and uncles dotted throughout the council flats around us. At school we were taught by Irish nuns. Our homes were yards from the river. Our needs were limited and so were our means. We used phone boxes, took the bus, walked a lot. The extended family is almost all gone now – some to Kent, some to Essex, many to the grave. The world we lived in, which was to my childish mind permanent, was in fact fugitive. It has been largely swept away. The scale of the changes makes me gasp.
Does it matter that one middle aged man feels nostalgia for a lost world? In some senses ‘no.’ My mother tells me her grandmother remembered Tower Bridge being built – and the bridge is of course the defining icon of modern London. So it’s only a couple of generations before we get back to a London very unlike ours – more like the London of Dickens or of General Booth’s survey. The same great grandmother remembered market gardens south of Jamaica Road and a mill stream running across Abbey Street from her own childhood. Even I remember the footings of the bridge that used to cross that stream, but no bridge and no river. The Neckinger has been in a culvert for well over a hundred years.
I think the pace of change in London has swept us down an unattractive path. In the 1930s Senate House in Bloomsbury was the tallest building in London. Orwell used it as his model for 1984. It served as an inhumane, faceless icon of a psychopathic state. We’ve moved on from Orwell. When I cross London Bridge or Tower Bridge and look at the vast ugliness of the Shard, I feel little of the human figure in it. I feel in the same way Orwell did about Senate House, but the scale has changed. It seems to me many inner London buildings exist to dominate us or to feed the egos of their builders. I want to say to them ‘there’s no need to shout.’ We can see you.