The liquid city

View of the Thames, drawn from Patrick Keiller's film London, 2005
View of the Thames, drawn from Patrick Keiller’s film London, 2005. © Matthew Herring 2005

The river Thames at Bankside is one of my old haunts from back when I lived in London. I was there again recently with my family, visiting Tate Modern. Ioana took the kids back to our friends’ home once they’d had their fill of rolling down the slope in the turbine hall on the huge stripy carpet installed by an artist collective SUPERFLEX (far more fun than the giant swings). I stayed on for a bit, drawn by the place rather than the art. The view from the South Bank has always seemed to me like a vision, as if nothing is quite solid or real: the elements of London exist in deep affinity with one another by the river, pervaded by a veiled whiteness of Portland stone, concrete, river, and sky. When I went up the Shard, a few years ago, it struck me how much the buildings around St Paul’s Cathedral resemble the limestone pavements in the Yorkshire Dales: the same pale, flat, rectilinear slabs separated by deep fissures. I remember once trying to sketch from somewhere near Bankside and finding the luminous greyness oppressive. It was impossible to capture in crayons, the grey light pressed on my retinas, like a kind of concrete and Portland snow blindness. Light can emanate from concrete as from an overcast sky.

London is a city of skyscapes. And of sound: I can still hear the clanking of cranes and the rush of traffic; the buzz coming across the river from that sketching trip years ago. London from the South Bank manages to be both crushingly heavy and as weightlessly evanescent as pumice. I realised I was trying to draw the structure of London – the forms of its architecture – but London has no structure and oscillates like a mirage. It’s like trying to draw a feeling. Sometimes I feel London draws its oppressive weight from the concentration of power and wealth – power and wealth that exclude you and grind on with no need of you. Looking across the river towards the towers and slab office blocks of the City you are acutely aware of a terrible gravity. I ended up overworking my drawing with a white crayon, always an admission of defeat.

Years later, I left the Tate hoping to sit somewhere and reconnect to that memory. Instead of a slab sky of white, it was one of those windy-sunny days where the clouds look as if they have been wrenched and torn apart by some frenzied being. It was Sunday and the crowds were out in force along the South Bank, scudding and milling along like clouds. Tate Modern is the nexus, the centre of gravity, of the current popularity of modern art; the tower of Tate Modern is like the pinnacle of rock beneath the Gulf of Coryvreckan which causes the whirlpool – in this case of people restlessly circulating. I made my way westwards as far as it would take for the crowds to thin out a bit. I had half a mind to walk to South Kensington, another old haunt. The crowds thinned out after Westminster Bridge (where I noticed the new concrete barriers like cutwaters put there to stop repeats of the terrorist vehicle attack) and I sat on one of the benches with weird cast iron swans’ heads, opposite the Houses of Parliament.

The river is both a hiatus in London and its liquid essence. I imagined the river being constructed as a massive civil engineering project, a vast trench dug through the heart of the city without yet any water in it. The river is a fault line between the two halves of London, like the city is a stone that has cracked in half. I had been looking at Mark Bradford’s huge collage Los Moscos in the Tate, with its grid-like structure recalling Bradford’s home city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a city defined more by the grid than by the Los Angeles River, but London’s structure hangs on the river, like a wasp’s nest on a branch.

I imagine the river having the same relationship to London as God has to his creation in process theology. London as the river’s emanation. In process theology God and the world are fellow travellers in time: both exist within and are transcended by its flow. Becoming trumps being. London and the river are also locked in a similar flow and a similar becoming. The river is the liquid city: liquid Portland stone and liquid concrete. Liquid possibilities. The suspended silt which gives the river the appearance of dirty milk is the dust of the city. The city, for its part, is the river’s precipitate, a crystalline deposit crusting its banks. The river begets the city from its – the city’s – own substance. A god locked in time is a lesser god, however. 

The river is thick with thought, with the city’s crowded mind. As I sit staring at it, the river is flowing backwards: the tide is coming in and pushing the flow back upriver. (When I lived in Hammersmith I once saw the same dead dog floating up the Thames and then later on back down again on the ebb tide). Unlike the flow of time, the flow of the river is reciprocal; uncertain. Its ebb and flow are the heave of the crowd and its silt the hiss of its thoughts. I wrote down some of the things that the river’s surface reminded me of: mercury, graphite, liquid brass, milk, urine, paper pulp, the cortex of a brain. Everything and nothing.

Walking on a little, I looked at the apartment blocks being thrown up by developers along the riverbank. The concrete lift shafts stood starkly like insane overgrown pillboxes inside the steel skeletons of the unfinished flats; stains on the concrete showed where water had once flowed in rivulets from each section as it was cast. Water soaks through concrete. Beneath the Blavatnik Building at the Tate is an area which originally housed storage tanks connected with the power station. It is a massively constructed space made of rough concrete. High up one of the walls water seeps through, like one of London’s lost rivers trying to escape its confinement. Water is the true state of concrete and rock. The river is the key to London, seeping as it does into the Tate basement.

Across the river from the unfinished flats, impure light reflected off the glass and steel of Millbank Tower, home of (at various times) both the Conservative and Labour parties, the UN and the World Bank. London is a city of reflections. I crossed Vauxhall Bridge. Sometimes the river gives you a smile: a flash of indigo on the ruffled surface. Usually, it is the colour of melancholy, or of one of the silver mercedes that course through the arteries of the city like undissolved drugs. The river disposes of things. It erases and cleanses; is both forgetfulness and memory. London is a state of mind that you can read by walking. I ended my walk at Pimlico tube and headed back to rejoin my family.

The following day, I reflected on my walk and reread my notes in a cafe in Hampstead. Hampstead types talked intensely to each other, over generous portions of cake, of business or dilemmas or other people’s follies. Over the road, I could see a building with a crooked sash window and a pink bacterial water seep down its cream painted masonry. Everywhere in London – even in rich Hampstead – there are buildings with cracks, some of them huge. Everything is shifting and provisional; threatening to slump into the oozy substrate. I looked at the people around me in the cafe and thought that it was the same for them (and me); that they were worn, stressed and cracked like the buildings, without foundations. Next to the building with the crooked sash was a yard entirely festooned with Russian vine and overshadowed by a sycamore tree. A strange, extravagant green recess in the city. Two men manhandled a steel I-beam off the roof of a van, which was also loaded with umpteen sheets of plywood and PIR foam.

Later on, Ioana and the kids and I went in the cafe in Waterstones on Hampstead High Street. There the scene was different. Hampstead High Street is unreal, so astronomically wealthy and fussed over that it seems to levitate; if the hill didn’t support it at the altitude it does, it would float there anyway. Egalitarian Waterstones is there like the embassy of a foreign land. At the next table in the cafe sat a group of several children and women. The women were very obviously nannies. They talked in the way that employees do behind their employers’ backs. The children – the infinitely precious progeny of the wealthy – messed around, spilling their drinks over books unpaid for and dropping lumps of pastry on the floor. The nannies apologised to us for the disruption – they were nannies, they explained, and these were the children they looked after. As if that would excuse the scene or as if, indeed, we wouldn’t have guessed the fact. Ioana – a nanny – smiled and said it was OK. I couldn’t help being smug that our children were our own and better behaved. We oscillated in between two strata of society: those of the nannies and their rich and badly behaved children. Outside, it started to get dark.

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