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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

24 March 2023

On a boat trip on the Thames, Malcolm Guite encounters remnants of the past

I HAVE been out on the Thames, or “London River,” as the old Norfolk wherrymen used to call it. It’s always a pleasure, and often an awe-inspiring experience, to be on that great river; for it carries in its tides and currents, and along the arcs and curves of its course, so much history — and, indeed, pre-history.

If one is even slightly aware of what T. S. Eliot called “the present moment of the past”, then even ten minutes on the Thames is almost too intense an experience; and I had the pleasure of being out and about on it for the best part of a day. It was low tide when I walked down the steep gangway, with my son and my old friend Sean, to board one of the Uber Boat Clippers, with our all-day passes.

Already, the indefatigable “mudlarks” were out, picking their way along banks that the receding tide revealed; for, buried and sometimes surfacing unexpectedly in those banks, are all the oddments, thrown away or lost, from more than 2000 years of Thameside life; and the mudlarks, as these beachcombers call themselves, find and treasure so much that was once lost and cast off: old clay pipes, coins from many reigns right back to Roman times, glass beads, old rings, and sometimes more precious bits of jewellery — earrings slipped to the tide on some moonlit Elizabethan tryst, all buried and revealed again to those with sharp eyes and good luck.

But, as we were ferried down the Thames under Tower Bridge and past the Tower itself, making our way to Greenwich and the Cutty Sark, the buildings along either bank were also witness at once to change and continuity. Between the modern towers of steel and glass in the City, and the other clutch of them down at Canary wharf, are all the old warehouses, docks, and wharfs of the Victorian Thameside, where goods from all over the world were brought upriver in tall ships and hoisted up on cranes into warehouses. Some of the old cranes and gantries are still there on the buildings, but the warehouses themselves are all converted into bijou flats and studios.

And, then, squeezed in between those larger buildings are little 16th-century inns hanging on, in spite of everything, their history in their names: the Mayflower, the Prospect of Whitby.

As we passed by some of the older warehouses, which once belonged to the East India company, Sean remembered and recited a poem that John Masefield wrote, as Laureate, in 1914, after a visit to such warehouse:

. . . you showed me nutmegs and nutmeg husks,
Ostrich feathers and elephant tusks,
Hundreds of tons of costly tea. . .
And choice port wine from a bright glass fount,
You showed, for a most delightful hour,
The wealth of the world, and London’s power.

That last line has an ambivalence that we feel even more deeply now than Masefield may have felt it then: “The wealth of the world, and London’s power.” As we reappraise our colonial history, we are much more aware of the cruelty and inhumanity running through that power that drew so much of the wealth of the world to London, from the exploitation of enslaved labour to the setting of unfair and extortionate terms of “trade”, and the gunboat diplomacy that enforced those terms. And one thinks of the opium wars; for the long list in Masefield’s poem also includes “a myriad drugs which disagree”.

Yet, all that history to be retold, at times to be repented, lies not just in the books and universities, but is also, as every mudlark knows, waiting to be discovered right under our feet.

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