Sweet Thames, run softly
Spring 1977. A tiny tutorial room in an ordinary Scottish secondary school, in a small North East market town. A dozen or so final year students, taking Certificate of Sixth Year Studies English (now the 'Advanced Higher' qualification). All of us being challenged by our first encounter with 'The Waste Land', by T. S. Eliot. For me, as the poem unfolded with each lesson, it was a sense of opening up to a new world. We weren't taught to a national lesson plan or detailed marking scheme, as sadly seems to be the case nowadays. We were simply led to a love of literature, to trust our personal response. Every spring I remember that sense of discovery. But I hadn't realised how deeply 'The Waste Land' had sunk into my being until we were in London recently. We stayed in a hotel near the Thames, crossed and re-crossed bridges over the Thames, walked along the Embankment, and took a boat from Westminster to Greenwich. And throughout, the river images from 'The Waste Land' came unbidden into my mind.
The first two photographs are my daughter's. There are no rainbows in 'The Waste Land', but they show another face of the river so I had to include them. I have to confess a technology fail - they were taken on an iPhone, which doesn't seem to like transferring to larger format photos.
Back to my own camera for this shot down river to the London Eye. We were having breakfast over the river, in a little cafe at Lambeth Pier which juts out over the water.
We took a slow tourist boat down to Greenwich. We could have taken one of the fast Thames Clippers, which are used by commuters, but we wanted to take in the detail of the passing riverbanks. And there were so many details. I was so fascinated that I forgot to take photos. We passed the mouths of small rivers trickling down narrow creeks, of disused locks; shingle beaches and patches of sand; Shakespearean pubs; a floating police station. So many different faces of the river. I thought I spotted the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr, whose walls 'hold inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold'.
Tower Bridge, below, seems to be supported by the pinnacle of the Shard, London's newest tallest building. Of course I looked for Eliot's crowd flowing over it.
|The river sweats|
|Oil and tar|
|The barges drift|
|With the turning tide|
|To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.|
|The barges wash|
|Down Greenwich reach|
|Past the Isle of Dogs.|
Even at the time I was aware that our teaching in English that year was something extraordinary. Nearly 40 years on the fact that one of the highlights for me of a family trip to London was to experience anew a poem first encountered in that small, bare tutorial room is a tribute to a gifted teacher. Thank you, Sandy Gibb.