Looking far back at the pages of a photo album, the Waterboatman and Lady Bountiful were doing their best to enlighten him about all the people captured.
In the pauses, as his parents racked their memories, he’d wondered how much significance might be wrung from similar photos of people he’d never known? Could you think yourself inside them? Could you brood on the world from those other points of view? Wasn’t this what everybody did unconsciously in museums and galleries, only carried a little further, treated with either more respect or with a cavalier poetic license?
There were old pictures at home, in their own albums, of himself and Queen of the May together – photographs in which they looked to him like figures of legend. Presumably everyone can feel like that – especially about photos that recounted love at its beginning? Whether it was their life behind or the presence of love that gave these photographs their mythical quality, it certainly wasn’t photographic skill. Iconic shots of even worthwhile celebrities, by contrast, are frequently nullified by their high style.
Similarly, there are so many esteemed works of art that fade over time because they rested on style. Style is often an attractive quality – especially to the young. In loyalty to our hopes and dreams, to all the various things that influenced us: cultural icons, the films and books, the art and music we most admired, we sometimes must not look at them too hard – for we might discover we’ve given others the credit for our own abstract yearnings. To realise we’ve outgrown what once was inspiring, is unsettling.
How imposing wedding photos in the past could be: as if all those captured in black and white or sepia were on the brink of founding an empire or dynasty! Instead, most must’ve been typical of their class or society; people who were perhaps happy for these wedding moments to be one of the high points of their lives; happy then to retreat into the anonymity of the ordinary? Or were they?
One of the photos of his Grandad – a head and shoulders portrait, bemused with a pipe – was taken some time after he’d retired from a lifetime of driving lorries. (His other Grandfather had done the same job, but as far as he knew, they’d never met). Proud but modest against the fringes of foliage of the garden balcony of his west London council flat, this picture showed his Grandfather exactly the way Volcano remembered.
In pictures taken in the 1930’s when his Grandad was younger, he had a surprisingly nonchalant air – almost like the actor Robert Mitchum in his heyday. He looked taller and more self-possessed than those around him – perhaps because he’d come to England as a partial outsider? It was hard to fit this calm aloofness, auspicious of inevitable fortune, with the lorry driver reputed to spend most of his free time down the pub. The archetypal story of Volcano’s Nan, fed up by her husband’s non-appearance, carrying his dinner through the streets to bang it down on the public bar of the John Barleycorn (or was it the saloon of the Luddite Arms?), was equally hard to fit with the older, quietly humorous man strolling to his allotment, or playing pontoon with V and his younger sister – engineering it so that they always ended with an equal pile of his coppers.
By contrast, despite being bombed-out twice, it was not hard to imagine him scorning to use air-raid shelters during the Blitz – the Blitz which, like so many others, the rest of the family returned just in time for.
In another photograph, taken before the war, his Nan and the legendary Aunt Maggs looked straight at camera, naturally quite unaware of the adjoining photo to their left. This other snapshot showed the Waterboatman, aged about seven, with four other young children, during their evacuation to the Midlands a year or so later. Apparently, the small boy at the back was Georgie Murch – as fabled a name as that of Aunt Maggs. The fable might have come from tales half-listened to over the years, but mostly originated from the down-to-earth, working-class solidity, Everyman character, of the name itself – as though he was the epitome of a whole generation risen from working-class gutters, to become scrap metal magnates, famous footballers or early pop-stars.
One of the wedding photos showed two distant relatives Volcano had not previously chanced upon. On his Nan’s side was an Uncle Ern. Everyone of that generation seemed to have an Uncle Ern. All Lady Bountiful and the Waterboatman knew of him was that he was standing half behind the wedding dress to disguise that he had lost his right arm – but due to other exclamations and digressions, no other information on Ern was forthcoming. The most mysterious photo – in faded sepia – showed a middle-aged man in a Great War uniform. Volcano’s parents speculated that this was an older brother of his Nan’s: “Uncle Ted?” They had suggested, looking at each other.
As the train drew away, he saw his parents turning the corner of a nearby street, unaware that briefly, he could see them again as they walked home. They’d left just before the train arrived, all of them finding train farewells too upsetting. He wanted to open the window and shout out . . . but realised you couldn’t do that anymore.
He thought again of the photos and became lost in reverie for almost an hour, until the refreshments trolley crashed up the aisle, making him yearn for the old wood and upholstery of dining carriages that died out when he was young, and a style of service beyond his means – and which in any case would’ve embarrassed him.
The young man who pushed the trolley had an uncanny resemblance to a youthful Paul Nash. It wasn’t hard to imagine him getting home from work and settling down with relief to painting Solstices in his studio . . .
Why did he have this bad habit of wanting to endow the day to day world with distinctive, historical personages? It’s obvious that the daily world is not good enough! That it’s just not good enough for anyone – was a commonly occurring thought, and one he could not always be detached and calm about. Probably the driver of the train didn’t look much like Sigmund Freud (he’d noticed this as the train pulled in to the station), and his Grandad’s resemblance to Bob Mitchum was just one of those tricks of photography? Really it was an insult to these people to be subsumed, lost in the penumbra of earlier, more famous luminaries (just as that sentence was too fancy for its own good. Like the substitute personages, it was a distraction, a mask, a shelter. . .)
The man hanging about behind the fence at Wessex South station however, had resembled Lord Horatio Nelson – despite the lack of a white wig and the addition of a pesky Jack Russell sniffing around his feet. Who knows – Nelson may have bred Jack Russell’s’ in his spare time, or at least entertained the thought?
Perhaps he was being too harsh on himself? After all, don’t most people exaggerate incidents in their daily lives for comic, dramatic or poetic effect? Some people would say that Freud’s entire life’s work was based on dramatic inflation and obsessive imposition. While Paul Nash himself (spared the insistent triviality of mobile phones – a modern disease Volcano entirely ignored), made relatively inconsequential objects into totems of power and beauty. The sunflower exalted into the sun, or as a bounding wheel to embody rituals from the Golden Bough[i] – itself a treasury, hallowing old stuff into glory!
So it was, that all peoples, in all times, sought significance to make life bearable: Even pub names would endow an inconsequential building in a terrace, into a Queen or a King, a heraldic Lion rampant or historical legend: The Green Man emerging from his shrine of foliage, The Archer aiming his longbow beyond the heavens. Might not such signs raise the drinker’s spirits as they entered the doorway . . .
Across a causeway of bright tidal water, the rhythm of the carriage wheels disguised any rhetorical blurring in Volcano’s train of thought. He needed sleep in hand. At 22.30 another train would depart a London terminus, for the mysterious home he could not remember, to travel through the night. He envisaged – as if it paralleled the train outside the window – Paul Nash’s eccentric yet haunting painting, ‘Northern Adventure’[ii].
In some vivid fragment inside his mind he got a sense of home – and knew of the long walk into the following dawn, beyond the last section of railway. This was why he needed the sleep he could not get. Reverie though, was undoubtedly the next best thing.
It did not seem long before the suburbs of London gathered around – perhaps he slept after all? Though the racing view outside the train was recognizable, the trains themselves were not. On this route they used to be longer, louder and emptier with windows you could lean out of – rushing above and through the world. Now the world was an air-conditioned backscene, its trains sealed and dead. Ridiculously overheated – like public and private buildings everywhere now that all but the poor have gone soft – we pay for their speed by being heated to desiccation.
Needing to see and smell water, as soon as he was off the carriage and through the barrier, Volcano diverted to the river and then wandered . . . eventually pausing as night fell on the garden terrace of a pub beneath Cannon Street, to watch the water pile between the iron piers bearing up toward Southwark. Trains were rumbling through the rush hour as the river reached its highest tide – departing constantly over the bridge into Kent and East Sussex: for Northfleet and London Bridge, for Woolwich and Gravesend. Indifferently intoned, the magical processions of names echoed down from the platforms above: Hither Green, Chiselhurst, Knockholt and Dunton Green. To Sevenoaks, New Cross and Headcorn, he went in his mind . . . to Ashford, Folkestone and Dover. Fleeting places in earlier years, under sunshine or in winter darkness. Orchards below sloping hills when he was a child. Junctions and streamlined stations, empty in expectant lamplight or rushing beneath racing clouds . . .
But now those visions are dispelled by the wash of the darkened Thames, as the tide, turning and adding to the rush downstream, surges and slaps below, sets swaying two moored rubbish barges, booming against Walbrook Wharf. Illuminated buses head homeward over Southwark Bridge while cement mixers cross north instead, to bring their revolving liquid of construction. A slither moon over Clink Street is crossed by jets on a lowering flight path . . .
People lose their distinctiveness in the pouring crowds and no-one had seemed impressed or even to notice – like some last quiet apocalypse in suspension, or vast conflagration approaching from the west – the molten redness of the sunset visible from London bridge. The overarching panorama is to them just normal . . . no phantasmagoria, no City of Dreadful Night[iii] subject to what the thunder said. St Magnus Martyr was spot-lit gold in a gap backed by the Monument, both of them dwarfed but shining like beacons in their hollows amongst the ironed planes of blanker buildings.
An hour earlier, the schools had been emptying in Walworth – hundreds of children in black blazers with yellow piping, dispersing through the tower flats and council streets, distinctive in every shout and gesture. The crowds on London Bridge and from the city are more reserved . . . Those few that stray to this night pub terrace, in late November, suspended over the tide piling up against the piers, become distinct, regaining themselves in snatches of conversation, no matter how trivial. But their phones ring constantly – the magic wands of zombie-land casting their instant spell, beckoning their slaves away to their customary elsewhere flow . . .
Earlier still, the area around Bluebottle House had been unrecognizable. It had not only become safe to park a car, these mostly silver things, looked blandly expensive. He recalled a car survey his junior school class had carried out circa 1970, in the new subject of ‘Environmental Studies’: blue then, was by far the most popular colour – all the shades of blue one could possibly imagine, blues now seen no more . . .
Borough Market too, under its time-locked, cast-iron railway junction, which had once looked fixed in terminal phase, had been unbelievably poshed up: the surrounding streets adorned by bespoke tailors and restaurants – heritage, money and sightseers were turning it into a shopping/museum experience. Above Southwark Cathedral, through its winter twilight fringe of trees, arose the Shard, attended by tower cranes . . . The tourist and acceptable heart of London had grown – spreading east along the river. Waterloo Bridge once seemed its Eastern limit – especially south of the Thames. Now it stretched solidly to Tower Hill and beyond – areas that once were only outposts or islands for coach trips.
Another memory had bloomed from the time of that car survey: a family works outing by cheerful coach to H.M.S. Belfast – shortly after it opened as a museum. Then, the battleship was abandoned amid brooding and derelict wharfs – at the heart of an urban darkness. In the dark chasms of blackened brick, you could almost feel the Blitz and further back, hear the metallic clangings or wooden stirrings of all the vanished ships – white sails long faded to blackness – the hordes of dock workers ghosted away . . .
How he had suddenly longed to be in that world instead! To see and feel it. To discern its entire texture. To scrape it from the old dark brick courses or catch it in the rusting tangle of cranes. To see it when it had real purpose!
Back under Cannon Street bridge, another police launch passes, blue lights circulating, fast against the double current, and sets off the barges again, shifting uneasily in their modern sleep . . .
Lawrence Freiesleben, copyright 2013
From, Maze End, chapter 21 – Information for a Shade[email protected]
[i] Paul Nash (1889 – 1946) English painter of landscapes, encounters, war and visions, including Solstice of the Sunflower – in the composition of which he was greatly influenced by J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (A Study in Magic and Religion), 1922.
[ii] https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/northern-adventure-107479 (Based on St. Pancras Station from a flat across the road).
[iii] References to James Thomson’s poem of London and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.