People often claim that modern cities are soulless, busily erasing their memories of themselves. To me, that feels far from the truth. I’ve lived all my life in London. I have a strong sense of my identity being fused with this big city and the countless ghosts of its past. But it’s not the solid stuff – the architecture, the streets, the monuments – that gives me this feeling. I was born on the river Thames itself, on a sailing barge that once ferried coal up and down the West coast of England from Newcastle to London – coal to help run the machinery of a big Victorian city.
Living on the barge was like living on the back of a huge beast. As I crawled around on deck I could feel the river shifting below me. Half asleep, the Thames breathed in and out, its tides as reliable and regular as lungs. Every twelve hours there was a filling up and a falling away. A loss and a return. It was a funny kind of clock, but I thought everyone lived that way. Then one day we moved onto land. It was a shock: brickwork and asphalt, roads and walls and corners. My world closed down, suddenly and without warning. For years I had squinted into the light while the Thames outwitted me. It never stuck around long, but it always came back. Now it was gone.
Ever since then I’ve felt a bit like a pirate on shore leave, waiting for the wind to rise and the signal to go back home. As builders know, rivers go underground but you can’t get rid of them. So the Thames seeps back into all my work. I can’t seem to leave this place alone – like the tug of the tide, the further and faster I leave, the stronger is the call to return. But OK, I have to admit – reluctantly – it’s not just my river. I’m sharing it with millions of others, before and with and after me. And if it belongs to all of us, or we belong to it, what part does it play in our sense of ourselves?
I don’t think of the Thames as the soul of London. To me it seems more like a vast and public memory-net. It’s London’s unconscious, powerful and discordant. Like a dream, it jumbles the tragic and the silly, the past and the present, the mud and the gold, and brings them back to us in strange new shapes. Every day, century on century, someone dumps something in the river. Something they want to get rid of. The job of the Thames (we hope) is to take it away, make it unrememberable, untraceable. Yet despite our wishes, the river spits a little bit back with every turn of the tide. Flotsam is all the stuff we discard and disown, deny and forget – the stuff we don’t want to know and pretend we never did. As the water recedes it leaves behind on the shoreline clues, rags, fragments from a sunken world.
There’s any amount of stuff under our feet: ancient shoes, leather soles peeling away like dogs’ tongues; rusted weapons given the amnesty of water; offerings made to river gods; clay pipes; spoons full of mud; corroded boat machinery; stolen wallets and faded identity cards; broken bottles and bricks rubbed soft by the shingle. There are modern additions too, in brighter colours – needles, rubber gloves, plastic floats nibbled by fish. But nearby on the shore a dog barks at a cow’s skull, dumped by the tributary where they used to slaughter the cattle. Even a casual rummage at low tide brings surprises (I found a 1799 penny and some lead shot fired by a musket).
And then there are the ghosts. Further down, sunken into the mud, are the human remains – Roman soldiers slaughtered by Boudicca’s army; the dead babies of Victorian prostitutes who weren’t allowed a Christian burial; the suicides who leapt and still leap from the bridges every now and then; the daft, drunken adolescents betting they can beat the tide at midnight. All of them preserved in London clay, all waiting their turn to prove they were here. Maybe one day a tidal wave will dislodge them from their resting place and bring them bobbing to the surface for us to gawp and wonder at – then we can say hello again to our neighbours, our forgotten ancestors, the dispossessed and the unlucky and the just plain mad. The drag of the tide is scary – it rises seven metres in a few hours; it empties like a big brown bath. It’s impossible to live with such a river without understanding your own irrelevance. None of us can own it or change it; no part of it belongs to me or carries my imprint. So how is it that, when I stand on the shore and stare into the Thames, I know, along with the ghosts, that here is where I am – and who I am, too?
About Tessa Sheridan:
Tessa Sheridan is a filmmaker, screenwriter and short story writer. She also tutors on the MA Screenwriting at London College of Communications and is the co-tutor on the joint British Council-MDA screenwriting course, THE FIRST DRAFT. Her award-winning short films include Is It The Design on the Wrapper? which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. BBC Radio 3 commissioned and broadcast her experimental radio drama exploring the underwater world of the Thames and the stories hidden within it. Her short stories have been published in various collections: her latest, That Going to the Zoo Thing, won the Chester Literary prize and was also broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Her upcoming feature film Flotsam is a psychological thriller set in London on the shoreline of the Thames.