I took myself down to the river Thames in London for a change of scenery and maybe a different perspective. I find that being by the waterside is alway medicinal. I end up sitting at a weathered wooden table in the late afternoon autumn sun by the window in a pub called The Grapes. Here I can palpably feel history and the continuum of time. This is a place where people have been sitting and socialising for the best part of half a millennium. Generations of seafaring folk and all those who plied their allied ship trades.
The pub, a narrow rickety building leaning precariously out over the Thames in London’s old docklands locale of Limehouse, is emblematic of London’s river life. The sound of the river swishing and lapping against the buttresses in the wake of passing ferries, evokes the sea; as does the ever changing tidal flow which reminds me that the sea reaches right up here into the city. Amazingly this ancient pub has survived the Great Fire, the Blitz and perhaps even more amazingly, the redevelopment of Docklands. Charles Dickens looks down rather gravely and pensively from his portrait on the maroon wall to the dark wooden paneling below. He was well acquainted with this tavern, already ancient in his day, writing of it in 1820 as,
‘A tavern of dropsical appearance… long settled down into a state of hale infirmity. It had outlasted many a sprucer public house.’
A complete and well-thumbed set of Dickens sits in the cabinet by my head, acknowledging the connection. It was from directly below this very pub that Sir Walter Raleigh set sail on his third and final voyage to the New World in 1616, on a quest to discover the fabled El Dorado; a voyage more equivalent in its time to a contemporary spaceshot to the outer reaches of the Solar System. How can we even comprehend what such a voyage meant in his day?
The river outside the window, glistening powerfully in the low sunlight, still speaks of movement and adventure, as it glides its way down towards the open sea. The gulls cascading over the waters, ever on the lookout for booty, hearken to the sea. Four or five hundred years have flowed past, yet really just a handful of generations. From Raleigh to Dickens, to us, to me. What those two great figures have done for us would be hard to encompass. We wouldn’t be who we are if they hadn’t lived and influenced our culture and history so profoundly. They contributed mightily to our creative thread and added new vistas both geographically and culturally. I can feel the living history in my heart, resonating in my being; it still calls out, like the cry of the gulls. Am I just being romantic – like the search to locate our ancestors so popular and beloved of TV shows today? I don’t think so. For also that search for ancestors is responding to a need because people are missing genuine connection and continuity. Oral history has long since withered as a means of spanning the generations.
Well-heeled new Dockland immigrants stand at the bar alongside working class descendants of the old dock industries of rope making, shipbuilding and chandlering in once-grimy Limehouse. The London Docks were the greatest docks in the world; and it was only in recent times of course, that all have decamped downstream to container ports in the estuary. There is never a break in history; it is the story of our lives, our struggles and our development, pushing improbably against the entropy of the universe, to create ever more ingeniously, instead of the to-be-expected gradual settling into dissolution. Modern thought breaks up experience and history into discrete events and dates. It’s a useful shorthand, but also a fiction. Reality is, and always has been much more of a stream, a process where everything influences everything else, and one ‘occurrence’ flows into the next in an endless succession of becoming. As writer and philosopher Owen Barfield said,
‘We need not pay too much attention to those historians who cautiously refuse to detect any progress in history, because it is difficult to divide into periods, or because the periods are difficult to date precisely. The same objections apply to the process of growth from child to man. We should rather remind them that, if there is no process, there is in fact no such thing as history at all, so that they themselves must be regarded as mere chroniclers and antiquarians – a limitation which I cannot fancy they would relish.’