Mother Thames – a river full of skulls

It’s Sunday in the city of London, the heart of the old medieval city. The streets are quiet. All the bankers and the office workers are somewhere else, the restaurants and cafes serving them are empty. The buses are fast and every sound echoes between fat stone buildings. The white dome of Saint Pauls in the distance is attracting every backpack wearing tourist within a mile. There are tours on guided buses, someone wearing the british colours standing on the top deck, microphone in hand. All the tourists seem to nod and pay attention. It’s a nice day for sightseeing. Clear and autumn bright.

I’m heading to the river, to a talk about the myths and mysteries of the Thames. I’m going with Madicken and we climb onto the HMS President which is rocking gently at the Victoria Embankment. Somehow that gentle rocking is disturbing enough to make both of us feel slightly seasick.

It’s not even noon, the boat is packed. We learn that thirty to fifty bodies are discovered in the river every year. We learn that the Thames used to be a sacred river, a sort of Ganges, where the celts dumped ceremonial objects. The river was a way to another world. Camelot has been placed in Westminster. Arthur and his knights in London.

Perhaps that’s why the river is also full of skulls. Lots and lots and lots of human skulls resting in the riverbed. Strangely though there are no bodies and no one seems to know where all the skulls come from.

There are more stories. What we see around us today on the shores of the river are many islands. Every place which ends on an ea or ey used to be an island, Battersea, Bermondsey. It’s just like on Orkney where the ey is a leftover from my ancestors. En ö, öy, ey, an island. London Bridge could have fallen down when it was invaded by vikings and King Canute saved the country by commanding the tide and drowning his enemies, no I’m getting ahead of myself here. That’s not really how the story goes.

There are so many stories in this city, mysteries, hidden lore, hidden history. I walk these streets and I only see today, I only ever scrape the surface. But there are layers and layers of lives and thoughts, hopes and dreams, going down deep into the mud underneath our feet. This place has been a metropolis for centuries. All that energy is stored within stone walls, all those lives, loves, fears, the worship, the ambition, it’s all still here. And I love it. That’s what makes this city great.

For more Thames lore check out the Totally Thames festival. And for London mysteries look up the Fortean Society

A short interlude about summer in London

The chervil is wilting on the balcony, a sign that summer has turned and London is tired. There have only been a few storms since June. It’s comforting to know you can’t have heat like this without the occasional release of thunder.

One storm woke us up in the middle of the night. A huge bang at five in the morning. It sounded exactly as if someone had slammed a giant hammer against a metal roof. The rumble reverberated between the council block, our apartment building and the train track below. It was so loud you could almost feel the house vibrating. The vikings must have known what they were talking about because the image of a giant bearded god hammering away above the clouds suddenly felt very real. There were flashes of lightning too and thunderclaps following almost immediately after. I don’t think I’ve ever heard thunder like that before and if I had been a child I would have put my fingers in my ears and cried.

Except for that theatrical night London has been suffering with a slow-burning fever. It’s been dry and hot, but never hot enough to be truly uncomfortable. On windless days the exhaust fumes and city dust turn the air syrupy with pollution. This is when I give up and want to lie down like a tired dog, my tongue hanging out, my head heavy on my paws. Those are days when it’s worth shrugging and giving in to the fact that you will probably not get much work done and your head will feel like it’s been jammed full of cotton wool.

There are other days, better days, when white clouds race each other east and planes zoom high above. Those are the days when the heat is bearable, when the sunlight feels pleasant on my skin and I smugly imagine my body soaking up all that media-hyped vitamin D. Those are days worth collecting, a little star next to each in my calender. Days when the streets hum with happy summer thoughts, busy Londoners hold open doors and bus drivers smile at you.

Each summer in the city seems to pass quicker than the one before. I want to remember this one. With its dust-filled hot days and blue skies. I want to remember the thunder storm and the herbs on the balcony that have gone to seed.

Some London love and hate

I love this city when…

It’s eleven on a muggy summer evening. Gerry and I have just shut the studio door after a long day at work. We’re tired, slightly grumpy and can’t wait to get home. Suddenly a woman in her 50s, grey hair, bright yellow jacket, skateboards past us with a defiant look on her face. I love London.

I hate this city when…

I’m late. London smells of exhaust fumes, the pavements are hot underneath my feet. I rush to get the tube, even though I hardly ever get the tube. I miss a train and decide to take the District line and change at Monument to the Central line. Because I never take the tube I don’t realise that I’m making a huge mistake.

I get off the train at Monumement and I start walking. Did I mention I hate the tube? There are long corridors and I try not to think about how much dirt, cables and Victorian piping there is between me and the street above. I had my first panic attack going up the escalator at Angel. I try not to think about this as I get to the first set of escalators. I travel further down. There are more corridors. More escalators. And then the signs for the red Central line point me towards more escalators, this time going up again.

I try not to hold my breath. My palms go sweaty every time I think of the escalators in the tube these days. Maybe I’m suffering from some kind of escalator phobia? But I’m trapped somewhere near the Central line at Bank station and I have no choice. I walk up the escalators. Eventually I get out. Choose to abandon the tube altogether and get a bus instead. I turn up late. I hate this city.

Image by Alejandro Escamilla.

Some thoughts on apartment nostalgia

A couple of days ago I started thinking about the flat in Notting Hill where Gerry and I stayed for a summer. It was quite an annoying time, we were in-between flats, most of our belongings were stored in a metal box somewhere far away in the industrial badlands of North London. We had to commute for over an hour in cramped tube carriages to get to the studio. I didn’t know many people in Notting Hill. I often felt lost and lonely and very underdressed.

But a couple of days ago that strange thing I’m going to call “apartment nostalgia” hit me. I tend to get this a couple of years after I’ve moved from a place. I doesn’t happen with all of the places I’ve lived in, but it seems to happen to the flats and places where I didn’t feel totally comfortable.

This is what I remember now.

Notting Hill

It was a flat full of light on a lazy side street with leafy trees and eccentric neighbours. The summer was warm and the air often rain-heavy and soft. I used to lay on the bed by the window, with the blind half open, reading Anna Karenina.

The sash windows were creaky and difficult to open. If you looked out you could spy on the mad neighbour with an astro turfed balcony full of bright plastic flowers and pink plastic flamingoes.

It was often quiet. At night we only heard the wind rustling in the trees. There was an amazing shower and a small kitchen where we cooked expensive food from the local Sainsburys. I wrote a book in that flat. It wasn’t a very good book and it’s now only forgotten kilobytes on an old harddrive. But during a couple of months its pages were strewn out on the carpet on the floor in that flat.

We put all our books in the built in book shelf on one wall even though we only lived there for a couple of months. When it was time to leave there were many things to carry and pack down and the man with a van didn’t show up and then he did, but pretended he was someone else because he’d kept Gerry waiting.

We spent a summer in that flat between the royal wedding and the riots. I didn’t like it very much back then, but now it feels like a magical kind of place.

Montgomery House, Manchester

Montgomery House

I lived there for a month. It was a cold, mouldy brick mansion that according to local hearsay had once been a young offenders institution or a Victorian mental asylum. Now it was a tired hall for students who couldn’t afford to pay very much in rent. I was interning at the BBC. I was 20.

My room was small and there was water dripping from the window. I’d bought all my bedding from Primark in one mad rush after having spent the first night sleeping underneath my winter coat. I didn’t have any internet and spent the evenings reading trashy novels and playing solitaire. The other students sharing my kitchen came from Norway, Africa and South London. I didn’t speak to many of them. The kitchen had mice. I mainly ate blueberry cereal with lots of milk that turned purple and sweet.

The common room was always cold and had the same birthday party decorations blue-tacked to the windows and walls during the whole month I lived there.

Almost every day I took the bus into town. One early morning I walked and was told off because I’d crossed through the most dangerous parts of Manchester. It felt pretty safe to me.

A year earlier I had dated a boy who lived in the same halls and I thought about how funny it is that we sometimes return to the places where we’ve been, even though we never planned it or thought about returning. Life sometimes gives you a sneak peek of what’s to come.

Now it makes me feel a bit nostalgic. Perhaps I just miss the freedom of that month. Of coming back to the city where I’d spent a very happy year, not knowing anyone anymore and no one knowing me. My time was completely my own. It was a good month. I spent it walking around the city discovering new places. I spent it eating cold cereal for dinner and dreaming about the months to come.

Do you feel nostalgic about any of the places you’ve lived in? I’d love to hear your stories.

Odd things that have happened recently

Lightning bolts

Last Saturday my friend Ilaria and I were sitting in a pub in North London talking about life, religion and God (you know, as you do on a typical Saturday). I was mentioning my lack of belief in a higher power, saying it would probably take an old man with a long white beard to appear suddenly floating around on a cloud in this room for me to start believing in some sort of higher being. At that moment a lightning bolt struck down just outside the pub. I’ve never seen a lightning strike up close like that before. It looked like someone had pointed mega-strong floodlights against the window. It smelt a bit burned (but perhaps I just imagined that). The timing was pretty epic. I still don’t believe in a higher power.

Photography

I’m getting very excited about photography again, especially shooting film on my old Nikon f2. I’ve even signed up for a dark room induction course next month. I’ve been reading about old cameras trying to figure out what Diane Arbus and Sally Mann was/is using. Arbus apparently had a Rolleiflex and Mann is shooting with heavy old large format cameras.

The best thing about this is that it’s all about the fun. I don’t have a goal, I don’t have to be the best photographer ever. I just want to play around and take lots of pictures. Some of them might even end up here.

The UK economy is recovering

Can you believe it? Is it true? The BBC says so.

The Mole man of Hackney

Recently I stumbled across the story of the Mole man of Hackney, a retired engineer who spent 40 years digging tunnels underneath his house. In 2006 the council and his neighbours had enough and he had to be relocated to a local hospital while the council filled in the tunnels. Quite an amazing story.

Image by Guillaume.