A dead pike entwined in fishing wire,
lifeless white, its sides pecked out, rolls bloated;
a ghost afloat in the soaking shadows.
On the bank, a boy shrieks, curses, throws stones,
mocks the big fish as it drifts slowly East.
East always East on the troubled current.
East always East into the deep darkness
fetching ahead into the dead distance
for burial at sea or to retrieve
another life, by chance: a second bite
downriver, where the Thames turns tidal,
and the one-way water slides into reverse
sending this boy home with stories
only minnows in jam jars as prizes.
* * *
But this is not where our story starts,
this is just the point at which we join it
where we pick up on the conversation
this is where we start paying attention
where the thread develops, where we enter.
Head west and the river is for leisure
and larking, regattas and sandwiches.
Idyllic evenings, pleasant afternoons,
punting and love, long dresses, short trousers,
boating and jovial poetry where
the water politely reclines, lies back
and shows off its innocent pink belly
under the flush and ruddy Oxford sky.
Head East and you’re swimming with shadows.
Lost in the locks, or hiding out on the
islands and aits and slipways and jetties,
the flood water flows over the weir
settles down in the basin or heads East,
always East, swelling pregnant at the bank
with a surge, not urgent but impatient;
the runoff, casual, with a swagger
with its history in its silver tale
it rubs shoulders with rogues and royalty
in Kingston and Hampton, is uncertain
of whom it will meet on the next corner,
around the twenty-five bends it must take
from Teddington into the estuary
and what’s heading its way on the journey.
Richmond to Stratford on the Overland
Wimbledon to Whitechapel underground
and along the A3 to the City.
This is known as the tidal excursion.
This is where it comes to make its fortune.
This is where the salt’s rubbed into its wounds,
where the Oxford clay’s washed out of its shoes.
This is where it grows up rough and stumbles;
balance is an art that’s achieved here
in between standing up and falling down.
Two lovers shored at forty-five degrees
propped on Wapping Wall learning how to lean
listening to the waters grappling
and watching the slow tango of tides.
It’s all freshwater back from Battersea
but here the blood gets muddy and mixed.
This is where the trouble really begins.
This is where the excitement really starts.
This is where the shadows all step forward.
This is where we question what is real,
what’s proper, straight up, kosher, authentic.
The language is as quick as history.
The accents are aromas, flavours, spice;
the smell of burnt toffee over the docks,
the smell of new money splashed in the wharves.
It is vulgar, obscene, brushed up and clean,
it changes hands, moves on, is forgotten.
But here even the words have shadows.
What was The Hope is now The Victory;
The Pride has become The Journey’s End.
The Pump, The New Pump, now it’s The Fountain,
and where the Old Oak once stood now I stand.
“20 Pall Mall, matches and a Mirror.”
I used to run from the church to the docks
from The Prince to The King and back again
(scratching a V in the brick for good luck).
Remember The Spitfire? And the smoke
in The Dog, and the muscle in The Arms?
The points scored in The Compass, the result
in The Roses? Rough as The Docker’s Knot!
In The Wreath, these three fellas steal in,
like yesterday, gabardines and trilbies,
drag this bloke by the hair into the gents
pulled the frown off of his sorry forehead
then punched a bar of soap down his throat.
Well, that was The Wreath. Now it’s The Comfort.
Yeah, saw it all back then … and plenty since.
And the rest of the ghosts
that float in the tubes and sewers and streams,
that drift off the river from history?
Alfred Henry Brandy*. What of him now?
Watchmaker at number 8 Chrisp Street.
His meticulous movements and jewels,
his precious mechanisms and crystals,
his rotors and chronometers stopped or
just stuck? Back in nineteen-fourteen
butcher George Coppen* hangs up his apron.
And his son studies the blood and decides
his profession. Or is his post chosen?
John Mann* – bird dealer, his cage still open,
sparrows bathing in the dust and the rest
of the tripe dressers and ale drapers
ashmen, dairymen, chips and chandlers
leather-dressers and undertakers stand
in the shadows. The names Harris Kosky*,
Isaac Slavotinsky*, familiar
and still in the filled in dockside darkness.
The river redundantly lumbers on,
the cranes of the old port of London gone.
Canary Wharf winks an aerial eye,
a business goes bust, assets liquefy
and Robert Jones*, a century ago
calls from the shadows to someone he knows:
Luigi*, the greengrocer opposite
and tells him his vegetables are rotten.
But shadows are modern: a new light shines
in the doorway of their supermarket
Deniz and Pirus laugh over sweet tea,
rocket and lemon on a clean white plate
with a skip, kick an orange in the street.
There’s a new light and there’s a new shadow.
Sprayed on the butcher’s shop front: ’EDL’
over the Halal sign in aerosol.
This is where the meat is declared legal.
Shadows fall on shadows fall on shadows.
This is where the blood gets muddy and mixed.
A light goes out, then on, then out again.
This is known as the tidal excursion.
It comes in currents, goes in trends, ebbs, flows.
This is darkest England – and the way out
washed up and down along the Limehouse Cut.
This is where the salt’s rubbed into its wounds.
Watch it make a rush for the barrier,
this is known as the tidal excursion
gushing open-mouthed now at Silvertown
chasing out of the gate with history
flashing in its silver tale, this is
not its exit and not its final frame.
This is not the point in the story where
a boy grows up or where a dead fish swims,
this is not where the East ends but where it
begins, changes hands, switches reels,
rolls, like a ghost in the shadows and grins.
*From the Post Office, London Directory, 1910-1919
Alfred Henry Brandy, watchmaker, 8 Chrisp Street, Poplar
George Coppen, butcher, 30 Chrisp Street, Poplar
John Mann, bird dealer, 15 Grundy Street, Poplar
Harris Kosky, fried fish seller, 127 Grundy Street, Poplar
Isaac Slavotinsky, draper, 106 Chrisp Street, Poplar
Robert Jones, grocer, 32 Chrisp Street, Poplar
Luigi Acampora, greengrocer, 30 Grundy Street, Poplar