Friday, 1 January 2010
Looking Back Catherine Johnson
A late morning and a walk along the Thames in and out of the private gated warehouses, watching the blue grey water lap at innumerable steps. It was lovely standing on stone steps that are so worn by the thousands of footfalls unloading everything from all over the world.
The alleys down to the steps are like brick lined corridors which open onto the bright reflecting blue grey of the river spread flat between here and the south side. There are some awful buildings, but enough interesting ones to make it worthwhile. There is the swallow and gulp noise of the river as it hits the stone steps (the tide was in this morning) to remind you this is the way to the sea, and not just stone steps leading down into nowhere.
And Wapping is so quiet. I can remember when there was nothing at all in Wapping except the derelict warehouses where we went for parties. Now the wasteland has been filled in but because it's all (mostly) expensive flats, no main roads with through traffic or buses it is still, for central London, deathly quiet.
So you stand by the river, facing the sun trying desperately to imagine the noise of all those ships and people and work. Hundreds of people some tired some bored some terrified, just off the whalers from Siberia or Murmansk, others loading up for the voyage to Indonesia, Batavia, Patagonia. The smell of tobacco and spices so strong the empty warehouses kept the scent for years.
It is very hard. So you try some more. Put your hand against the oldest bricks you can see and hope somehow you will get a picture flash up into your mind of how it was, maybe smell the smell, hear the sound.
It never happens. I used to hope, when I was a child, that I'd get some kind of electric shock from Castle walls, a shock that would catapult me into the past, even for a second.
I didn't know then that I would still be trying the same trick as a grown up.
At least, sometimes, if I am lucky, I can call it work!
Happy New Year!