London Bridge Nocturnes: January, a Memoir
Having read only enough about it to enflame my imagination and having seen only a few drawings of it, I was moved to take a walk each night from Baton Rouge to London across Ancient London Bridge, during the thousand years when two hundred shops and houses stood on each side of the narrow roadway.
Each night I approached the huge L&N railroad desk where I have worked for thirty-five years groggy with need of sleep, but the instant I took up my pen, meditations began at a leisurely pace.
I freely mingled facts and imagination, confounded time, listened to voices not my own. “I” is not always I. From Christmas Eve 1991 to Christmas Eve 1992 is the time-span of these nocturnal walks.
The erection of a bridge is an act of defiance, against Nature, against Death. An act of mastery that produces a mystery.
A finished bridge poses a question: Will it fall?
Does anyone, bridge builder or crosser, ever cross without a twinge, at least, of fear? Gephyrophobia: fear of crossing bridges.
When did I first see houses on London Bridge? Probably in the opening of the film Henry V with Laurence Olivier. But really see them? About a decade ago. Maybe 1980. At about the time I started Sharpshooter, in which bridges gradually took on mystical importance. Before that, Brooklyn Bridge, as pure symbol, in Hart Crane’s The Bridge. But much further back in Knoxville, Gay Street Bridge. Houseboats on the Tennessee River below. Wanting to live in one on water, running water, on a river. And then the sight of houses on a bridge, the feeling of living in a house, working in a shop, on a bridge. One of the greatest ever built.
And so I have come to this day. This start. This first crossing on paper. With some fear certainly.
London Bridge is falling down,
falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
my fair lady.
The rest of it tomorrow.
No, more now, tonight, because Gay Street Bridge is falling down, Brooklyn Bridge is falling down, Golden Gate Bridge is falling down, the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs are falling down, the Bridge of San Luis Rey, the railroad bridges from Alabama up through the Great Valley of east Tennessee are burning, falling into the rivers running below. We move across, the river moves beneath, while the Bridge stands still, seems to, but it, too, moves, falls slowly, crossing by crossing. The swinging bridges in Tennessee and Kentucky move, sway, swing, fall, down.
How shall we build it up again,
up again, up again,
how shall we build it up again,
my Fair Lady?
We will build it with wood and clay.
But wood and clay will wash away.
We will build it with iron and steel.
But iron and steel will bend and break.
We will build it with silver and gold.
But silver and gold will be stolen away.
We will put a man to watch all night.
Suppose the man should fall asleep.
Take the keys and lock her up.
In the Tower of London? Yes, as the game goes. But as the legend goes, she is locked up, mewed up in the pillar at the south end of the bridge.
Confederate General Moxley Sorrel’s feeling about bridges has haunted me for over a decade. “We were thus forced to throw our bridge across at Loudon, Tennessee [twenty miles south of Knoxville, my native city] where, fortunately, the boats could be floated direct from cars without need of wagons and there that curious bridge was laid by our worthy engineers. It was a sight to remember. The current was strong, the anchorage insufficient, the boats and indeed entire outfit quite primitive, and when lashed finally to both banks it might be imagined a bridge; but a huge letter “S” in effect it was with its graceful curves. But no man should abuse the bridge by which he safely crosses, [I always remember “abuse” as “curse”] and this one took us over, using care and caution. I shall always love the looks of that queer bridge.”
For centuries, London Bridge was the only bridge. When came the second? Third? How many in Plague and Fire? How many when Londoners tore London Bridge down? How many span the Thames today? What does “Thames” mean?
Primitives believed that to erect a bridge was to trespass on the powers of the gods of land and water. A bridge symbolized those powers. To appease the wrath of those gods, a human sacrifice—alive, in the main pier, to guard against malevolent pagan gods or spirits or forces. In the song, materials too weak—without human sacrifice—are sung. In Paris, a girl? In London, who? Or what? A grand ritual ceremony. Or does Peter de Colechurch’s chapel for St. Thomas serve?
In the Middle Ages, the belief crossers carried onto the bridge was that one side (which?) represented good, the other side (which?) evil. Crossing was a psychic ordeal? (Each day?) In the song, “cabbage” alludes to evil, “rose” alludes to good. A tug of war between good side, evil side ends this elaborate game.
After the Great Plague and Fire of 1665 and 1666, the merchants on the bridge meet in secret to decide what to do to prevent the destruction of the bridge by various imagined, future threats. Their practical solutions seem not quickly enough attainable. Someone raises the question: was a little girl buried alive in the main pier as legend requires? No one is certain; they steal a bridge history from a weird man who lives on the bridge (They don’t want to ask him to keep it secret). No mention, so they agree to choose a child from those merchants who have one, by lot, and they who have no girls will pay the others. They secretly mew her up. Someone comes ten years later and investigates (perhaps in disguise), and through him (or her?) we learn about the bridge. The weird historian tells the history to all who pass. (Maybe she was rescued by the historian, but suffered brain damage.) Missing girl seizes the imagination of plague and fire-ridden London, so demands are made for her recovery. Maybe a Jew is accused, hanged, etc. Gypsies killed in riot. Historian killed (or he is in disguise and so eludes merchants).
The Heraclitean flow, through twenty arches, measuring the events of all Britain’s eras. The abstract philosophical concept of time, embodied in one of the aptest metaphors, is made flesh here, more on this one site, narrow place, than anywhere else in the world.
Okay, everybody onto the bridge. Move it. Everybody.
“I survived the Battle of London Bridge that Ethelred, the unready, fought with Danes in 1008, a century and a half before Peter of Colechurch conceived the bridge.”
“We watched Peter build a bridge of wood piers and then of stone, thirty-three years’ labor.”
“I survived the panic that killed three thousand who had gathered to watch one end burn—some to help quench it—when sparks flew up and caught at the other end. It was on the night of July 10 in the year 1212.”
“It was a sad day when the chapel was converted into a shop. It was a sad day too when the Nonesuch House became a warehouse.”
The Great Stone Gate, the older of the two, fell suddenly on January 14, 1437. All the houses fell that were upon the pier of the Great Stone Gate, but no one was killed. A mystery, the fall, a miracle the human effect. As repairs went forward, the watermen flourished. The debris created a block in the flow of the river at the third pier. Slime having covered the debris over the years, it appeared to some to be a rock. “Rock Lock,” they called it.
Some say Duchess Eleanor Cobham was placed in a pillory on the bridge, but all evidence supports her punishment as taking place on Bridge Street—not the same as the Bridge itself.
The men who carried the heads and quarters of great men and tradesmen aloft, and stuck them on the pikes, installed new pikes. As an example to the high class, because heads of no one of the lower classes were displayed.
“Don’t you think Sir Thomas’s face is more lifelike in death than ever it was in life? Being beheaded has brought the color to his cheeks to rival any young maid.”
“Some would contradict the story handed down to our day that Margaret Roper, passing under her father’s head, which had laid in her lap many a night, might fall into her lap now, whereupon it did, and she was buried with her father’s head on her lap.”
“Contradict? But what’s the point of doing that? To achieve what? To right what wrong? In the service of truth? Which truth?”
“And so having seen the houses and shops on London Bridge, one of the wonders of the world, from the outside, east and west, from the banks on the London and the Southwark sides, I ventured onto the bridge itself to render their fronts in a drawing for etching later. But I should have reasoned before I stepped onto the bridge that I would fail. Stepping onto London Bridge, I saw that the roadway was only twelve-feet wide and if I survived the coach and cart traffic, I would go away with a drawing more cramped than any ever done of a house’s fair front prospect. I asked several times if I might set up in a window opposite the splendid shops with their houses above, but found I could not see sufficiently well. That was sixty years ago and I have yet to see to this day a drawing of the front of a shop on London Bridge. The fronts exist as they have always done, in shafts of light and murk of shadows only in memories of those who crossed.”
“The sound of water or ‘a certain slant of light’ on London Bridge slips in between a footstep in a room, between a lower and upper stair, or as I lower my head upon a pillow. Totally real, then. Then is now and by contrast what came to my senses and consciousness moments before and moments afterwards is pale. Maybe the paleness of some moments pleads for similar uneventful, but more intense, moments on the bridge.”
“On the bridge now, it is dark for me, on my bridge, London Bridge. Mine because it is not a street, a road, unlike anywhere else men have set up abode. So for each of us, it is ‘my’ bridge, with others living by on each side, and across the way, tight together. Where, when it is not dark, they, the heads on pikes above, cast down shadows, across my path. They, now, cast no shadows. No moon. Except by an inner light, that spiritual light that flows through all ever alive and now living, their shadows, the shadows of only transient, ferociously reluctant residents. Guests—fall across my consciousness tonight, as I stand at the Bridge foot, in this time of plague and fire. But not tomorrow in the moonlight. Then I am free of them, unless I look up, against the light, standing firm on my London Bridge. O Christ! Do you hear this folly?”
It was the silken
liquefaction of her dress,
that often flowed over marble,
in collaboration with the whirlpool
the rapids set in motion,
dragged Lady Grey down
to muck and mud.
The damp chill around my ankles as I keep up this chronicle of London Bridge delves deeper and deeper into the bone as the days and nights of January rain sweep “around the bend and down the Thames directly toward my window, dashing like sea salt upon the pane. Why do I keep up a record no one is likely ever on this earth to read? Someday all these houses will decay and fall and men will elect not to replace them and the stones will surrender to fatigue and the arches will drop their burdens into the water and the silt seaward coursing will cover them. Ah, yes, but then, won’t men centuries hence dredge up, as we dredge up occasionally Roman artifacts, evidence one may turn over in one’s hand and leave one’s thumbprint upon—that we were born and lived and worked and died upon this swift water-shaken bridge?”
“This old Chronicler can move only as far as the rush moves the pier under me each hour or so. I must enlist the young man home from the sea to aid me.”
“The old man at the window—I can see him only when I stand on the north strand and look west upon the bridge. It is me to whom he motions so frantically or is his frantic gesture perpetual, as a sign of witlessness?”
In a space so narrow—twelve feet—and not so long, since the Romans laid the first bridge across, the energy acting upon the structure, to build it, to add to it, improve it, repair it—daily—restore it, all that energy concentrated in such a small place on this planet, within this known universe! And the normal action upon it of water, weather, transient foot and conveyance traffic, human and animal, treading upon it, and the movement of walkways, thresholds, staircases, waterwheels, the taking in, stacking, and sending out of merchandise, and the energy of the makers of things—needles, books, paintings. Never placidity, not for a second, not even when the bridge’s basic normal functions were suspended for repairs or when the Great Frost abated the violence of water. Oh, and the fire, the fire, the fire, the fires that raged from the London side, that raged from Southwark bank, that rose up from under stairs on the bridge itself. The talk, sounds and cries of people. The wheels over the cobblestones. The cannon balls inflicted upon the bridge. The fear—the sheer energy of terror—within the breasts of the inhabitants. I intuit all, all of that, as one moment, and the energy is enough to blow the bridge to kingdom come.
“I took the comet to be an ill omen only after the plague set in and the tempest as an omen only after the fire followed so soon upon the plague—I resisted the import of dreams and vision and half-naked prophets on the bridge. But now, looking back, I cannot deny the numerous signs and intimations. Commerce cannot rely on the logic of the trade either. So why not take everything into account. Ignore nothing as irrelevant. We are finally ignorant of cause and effect. No one way leads us into a bright, predictable, reliable future. All things must be given due consideration. Dark signs alongside bright prospects. Even the fact that the bridge escaped plague and much of the fire may be a sign of catastrophe to come, to us alone, separate here, isolated, even though we are that centuries-old paradox—the lifeline to the greatest city on earth and yet not always apart, exempt from some laws and regulations, subject to others unique to our unique function in the scheme of things. And even man-made actions, clear as sunlight on the water, threaten us—the prospect of a second bridge, probably at Westminster. Our road is often called narrow, congested, dangerous. As we have been told, all bridges are affronts to God and the gods, and so, in some sense, cursed. We are not safe. Let us say it often amongst ourselves—we are not safe.”
“We seem to have been spared such horrors as they tell of during the plague, when infected unfortunates in fever wrapped themselves in blankets and ran into the great pits and waited for the dirt to bury them over. But have we? Has our fate been only postponed, delayed?”
“Can we know?”
“No, we cannot. Therefore, let us forestall, prepare ourselves—”
“Or prevent somehow.”
“Fire following plague persuaded us to meet again in secret and recommence deliberations, each man putting forth possible measures.”
“No, no, my boy. Shopkeepers on the bridge did not prey on settlements on each side of the river—the settlements were parasites of the bridge. First the bridge as a community—then others, attracted to it, settled on each end of it. Is that not marvelous? I know of no other such experience.
“We can only imagine what the wooden bridge was like across the Thames, which was shallower then. And imagine how gales, tempests, fires destroyed it over and over. At about the year 43 after the crucifixion of Christ a bridge of Celtic workmanship is said to have been built here.
“But no written record until 963 or so. No mention of a bridge or ferry even. Sometime between 963 and 984, during the time of the episcopate of Aethelwolde, Bishop of Winchester, a widow and her son, found guilty of witchcraft, by sticking iron pins in a figure representing the victim—a practice still alive in darker regions of Yorkshire—were taken to the Thames at the site of the bridge to be drowned. I will read to you the passage I copied from an Anglo-Saxon chronicle. ‘…and that district at Aegelesiapthe had formerly condemned a widow and her son because they had driven iron pins into a figure of Aelsie, Wulfstane’s father, and that became detected and they drew that crime forth from the widow’s chamber. Then they took that woman and drowned her at London Bridge.’ There, my boy, there it is, the very first record in the chronicle that there ever was a London Bridge—all the centuries the tides that marked the days on the hoary piers are for me to imagine, I may do that at my leisure and in my own way, and so, my boy, may you—I see in your eyes that it begins—but listen to the record as it continues: ‘…and her son escaped and was outlawed and the land was forfeited to the King and the King gave it to Aelfsie, and Wulfstan Uccea, his son, gave it again to Aethelwolde, the Bishop…’”
“Where did the son flee to and what became of him?”
“The next allusion to the existence of the bridge is to the tolls. From the sinister to the mundane.”
“Ah, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of London is a chronicle of fires. The years toll. And to that is added tempest, ice, flood, plague.”
The isolated bridge then was always caught up in the events on both sides. Everything is connected somehow with everything else. They drowned the widow but not her son, or, therefore, her craft.”
“A curse on the bridge?”
“Or on those who use the bridge?”
“Nothing that passes before the mirror of the mind may be without peril cast aside. What the mind, like a mirror, reflects exists in the flesh. Imagine the thing itself, and then search for it until you hold it in your hand.”
My fascination with London Bridge, the nineteen Rialtos, is total. I see a silver cup on a slender stem, a spoon handle’s sweeping curve up out of it. Moonlight through the window is inseparable from the sound of silvered water, the stroke of globular silver under the thumb, the smell of silver sniffed to catch just that—the aroma of silver. I touch the tip of my tongue to the silver and without flicking my forefinger from my thumb against the bell shape, I flood every molecule of the bridge and so my consciousness this night, this instance (only) with quick, flashing silver. Or is London silver, London Bridge pewter? Or London pewter, tables in houses on the bridge as I imagined only moments ago, silver. Everything depends upon a metal spoon in a silver dessert cup.
“We met, we met, and we met, and went over and over long lists of possible preventatives, striking each one off as we agreed it wouldn’t help, one proposal after another. We did not, I am saying to you, simply meet and say, yes, that is what we must do. And even when the solution was presented, half as a jest, we dropped it as impossible, and went on and on to others, but it kept coming back in some new guise, and finally it was the song coming through the window like an omen, that moved us to take it up as a serious proposal and examine it from all sides until the plan set down, point by point, was adopted.
“I refused to endorse it. I swore silence and left and in the middle of night got up and abandoned my family, left the bridge forever, cheating the assassin I was convinced they would hire and set upon me.”
“We sought him. We sent agents out into the towns and villages, the countryside. He was as if vanished—not a trace, and so always a worry to us. That he might speak of us. That he might confess. Return and accuse us, even though he was gone before we put our plan—even before we laid out the plan in detail—into effect. As much as any of us whom we saw in the course of daily business, he who was most absent was most present. In our shops, in the roadway, in our bedrooms. I would quit the bridge to put him behind me. Once away from the bridge, I no longer felt his presence. I was left alone with my own conscience. And that, of course, was hell’s fire.
“Once I planned to break into the pier and ‘let her out.’ I did no more than visit the stones in the dead of night, lay my hands upon them, in fear God would cast me down into the rush of water, uttered only half a prayer.”
“What if she was tainted with plague when he mewed her up?”
“What if a vessel strikes the pier and stones pile up and water rushes with greater force, undermining the pier and one morning a boatman sees her standing there, the morning sun upon her face?”
“We feared so many things could afflict, assault the bridge. But perhaps many things could destroy our solution. Imagine.”
“From the moment he told me, ‘She’s in,’ I never had a moment’s peace.”
It must have struck them all as a bad omen when the assassin sent out to kill the man who mewed her up returned to tell of his accidental death.
“He reached out to pinch the cheeks of the piked head of a nobleman and lost his balance among the impaled heads he had placed there himself and fell into the roadway and mayhap was dead before the horses trampled him.”
Violence? The water is always violent, and the City Fathers bring to the Gate the remnants of violence—the heads and quarters.
Rain drying on stones, a bird beating a seed on a stone, it drops into a crack, where flowers grow and proliferate. Iron rusts, bolts, nails in timber, the washing of windows—into the river East, shit and piss and scraps and cuntrags, centuries of them, and mold and damp trespass, drawers warp, become cuss-drawers, not budging knee-knocks and palm-slaps and jerks that hurt muscles in the shoulder, and salt that won’t pour or that clots on the salt spoons in the salt cellars, the rubbing, polishing of metals, the sip-sip-sip of house shoes, belts that slowly uncurl all night long on the floor, and hinges crying from end to end of the bridge—these are events. Prove to me that they are not. Prove it! You can’t! These things having happened first, happened repeatedly when some people, alive then, weren’t looking. And more, much more than I can capture. Nothing depends on my capturing. Everything happens anyway. The mice turds studding the pantry, the roaches making tracks, and snails in the dim damp crevices. Shreds of tobacco everywhere after America is discovered, and printed galley sheets cast aside.
Dark stains on fingers that clench over an apple. Smoke from chimneys on the bank drifts over the bridge, smoke from bridge dwellings drift over the town. At the square and drawbridge, tons of horse turds flipped over the rail. Changes. Human actions and artifacts never before, then ever after. How strange the bridge as would-be conquerors approached their prize—the town—who saw it for the first time, never having seen any bridge like it before, perhaps not even heard this one described. Disorienting? “What is this?” An omen of normal life gone awry. And then beheaded and stuck up there on a pole.
The pathos of those heads. Easy to regard as ghoulish, bizarre, even comical. But look you them in the face. Can you do it, really do it? To glance up in passing or to stop, stand and gaze is routine for inhabitants of the bridge or of the towns on each side. But to look them in the face as you do a neighbor or stranger met on a bridge. That is so vastly different.
In 1832, workmen demolishing St. Thomas chapel on the ninth Pier came upon the remains of a body. Having cast it into the water on the West Side, they told about it over beer at dusk. It was generally assumed to be the body of Peter de Colechurch who the Annals of Waverly Abbey records as being buried there in 1205. The body was not as someone not known to history had discovered, the girl’s substituted by her abductor, but both the girl’s and Peter’s. The assassin had placed the child in the arms of his skeleton, as God had ordained before the first mud and stone bridge across the shallow Thames in Ancient Saxon eras, long before the birth of Christ.
I see Londoners troop across the bridge to watch Shakespeare’s plays, Shakespeare himself going back and forth—or did he live in Southwark? Some must have crossed by water above—or below?—Shakespeare perhaps. But if he crossed—no, surely the bridge must, like a stage, a theater, have appealed to him, and walking and riding across to go to the Globe for rehearsals, he must have worked on plays in his head, the heads above the Southwark Gate (—or moved by then?) may have inspired plays, lines, scenes, phrases in poems. Did he pause to make a note? Did he stand musing at the rail in the open places? His audiences must have shopped, lived, worked, passed there as he did.
Consider the artists who sketched the bridge—why the inaccuracies—a desire to depict the bridge as remembered? No longer accurate as of that day?
Historians, did they feel the ebb and flow of history there?
The severed heads focus me on heads alive, moving there, musing there, imagining, cogitating—the vitality of centuries of brain waves, brain storms, impulses, malignant designs.
J.M.W. Turner, in his studio: “Yes, the way the bridge looks in a certain light, white, in my imagination, framed by boats, row and sail, in the foreground, the Tower white, too, in that painting, at least, all, all under Turner clouds, as critics are wont to say. Yes. Yes, of course, my clouds. Not God’s, this man’s, this creator’s. Not ego. Not for a moment. I paint the vision, but whence cometh the vision, perhaps from God? But, I have, like all who praise or damn this picture, left London Bridge itself too far behind. Let us return to 1205 when Peter de Colechurch died, having built one of wood that perished and this of stone that comes to us in modern times, and was buried under the Chapel at the Chapel Lock, the ninth pier from the London side. And the almost two hundred shops, houses above them, the heads lopped off aloft as warning. All gone when my vision arrested me and I stood on the South Shore above Southwark, above Shakespeare’s Globe, on the dock to paint. Such a distance. Such a distance from Peter de Colechurch’s fresh creation. Then, as the eighteenth century shot the rapids, I rowed up to the piers, the arches, close up, to capture from the east the broken view of Westminster Bridge, ghostly in the light beyond the dark, solid piers. It was then, ladies and gentlemen, that I, as my quick strokes of watercolor that you see before you caught the moment, that I walked on ancient London Bridge a few steps behind Peter de Colechurch among the houses, the shops, in the midst of carts, animals, my ancestors, ours. So, do not praise as you should, the moment’s work only, but feel in your bones the force of high tide, rushing through the piers down the ages, flooding our mouths.”