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!

4 comments:

Carole Anne Carr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carole Anne Carr said...

Lovely post, Catherine.
It brought back a memory and a question:

..maybe it was at that moment, when standing within the walls of a ruined Welsh castle and wishing and wishing that I could see and talk to the people who lived there in the 12th century, that led me to write children's historical fiction....

I like to think so.
Lots of successful writing in 2010.
Carole.

Frankofile said...

Your touch has prompted me to think of my family stories. Forgive me -


My mother grew up in Wapping in the 20s and 30s. She was irritated when people assumed it was a rough or delapidated place. There was a community (you didn't disobey dad and ride a bike - the neighbours would tell on you), a high Anglican convent (the nuns organised activities for the children throughout the year, and ran a summer holiday camp); in her family, the sons served as altar boys, and some went to sea (two were captains in the Atlantic convoys in WW2). Mum had dreamt of working as a stewardess on a cruise ship but ended up working in Woolwich Arsenal for the war effort.

What a generation.

Katherine Langrish said...

Atmospheric post, Catherine. I was in Wapping on one of the highest tides last year, and the river came crawling higher and higher up those stone steps, and I was trying to imagine the noise of the drayhorses clopping along Wapping Wall in the 1880's, and the smells of the tanneries across the river blowing over.