Thames: Sacred River

Iain Sinclair writes:

This morning there is a man in a short black coat running across a high brick wall; a hunchbacked fly springing sticky-fingered from perch to perch, before dropping heavily into the street. The wall – weathered yellow brick grouted with carbon deposits and grime – is enough of a barrier to have doubled in television films, cop shows or faked documentaries as the exterior of a prison. The polluted acres of the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company were re-created, after war and bomb damage, as Haggerston Park. The man in the black coat, barely pausing to steady himself, dives into the spasmodic traffic; motorists unable to believe their luck that the lights are working and the permanent utility trenches have migrated a couple of hundred yards to the south. He scuttles away, rucksack on stooped shoulders, distancing himself from his earlier disguise as wall-walker, acrobat; a workaday man of the crowd. But even with the rucksack – wrong colour, wrong shape – the man stands out: too furtive, too fiercely concentrated, fleeing the scene rather than jogging or striding like the fortunate denizens of the multi-balconied Adelaide Wharf, a spanking new canalside development in loudly upbeat colours. He lacks the compulsory bicycle. The rare flat-dwellers without acrylic helmets, released by security gates, move at an effortless pace, clicking through the gears, not registering where they are but where they ought to be, wired for input, noise infusions, lip-synching interior monologues. The human fly’s rucksack is stuffed, skew, sleeping bag dangling like a spare arm. He may well have been an early-rising, walk-to-work rambler, appreciative of the ruled shadow-lines of the trees, the suddenly voluptuous blossom season; a man like myself, determined to respect his regular route in denial of the padlocked park gates. Rough sleepers, in these pinched days, have disappeared. Regiments of Polish builders have returned, according to rumour, to their native land. Portions of the high wall are mattressed in a tumble of wisteria, helpful to escapees. But the jumper is no botanist, no philosopher of wild places. He’s away before the dog accompanists are let into a green oasis that operates like the Marshalsea Prison: if you are inside when the bell sounds, you stay the night.

(LRB 25 June 2009)

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