The rivers in Eng­land’s cities once hosted the out­casts of so­ci­ety

Geist - - News - Stephen Henighan

Rivers of Refuge

In Cam­bridge, the paths along the banks of the River Cam are thronged with bi­cy­cles. The fac­to­ries that used to stand on the city’s out­skirts, be­yond the walled col­leges of the late-me­dieval cen­tre, have been de­mol­ished. In their place stand low-rise apart­ment blocks hous­ing the new Eng­land: West­ern Euro­pean and Asian high-tech work­ers, Cen­tral and Eastern Euro­pean labour­ers, peo­ple from all over the world who have been drawn to Cam­bridge’s hos­pi­tals, med­i­cal re­search in­sti­tutes and fa­mous univer­sity. Ten min­utes’ walk from the river, the city’s fringes re­sem­ble those of many English towns: ter­raced cot­tages, ze­bra cross­ings, off-li­cences and bet­ting shops. The com­pact blocks of flats close to the wa­ter, like the hel­meted cy­clists who whisk past them, are more rem­i­nis­cent of Am­s­ter­dam or Copen­hagen than of the in­dus­trial cities of the English heart­land.

The rivers and canals were once the no man’s land of English so­ci­ety. The coun­try’s class sys­tem, en­forced by the school­ing op­tions avail­able to each so­cial group and con­sol­i­dated by the ac­cents taught in their re­spec­tive schools, obliged young peo­ple to ac­cept their as­signed places in a so­ci­ety where a per­son’s vow­els de­fined the em­ploy­ment they were able to hold. Tra­di­tional English so­ci­ety of­fered few al­ter­na­tives to dy­ing in the same cir­cum­stances in which one was born. Aside from em­i­grat­ing to Aus­tralia or Canada, or en­list­ing to fight in a war, one of the few re­li­able es­capes was to take to the rivers.

When I was a grad­u­ate stu­dent in Eng­land, an un­der­grad­u­ate scan­dal­ized fac­ulty and stu­dents at my school by ar­riv­ing for his first year in a ca­noe, hav­ing made a jour­ney along the rivers to reach the univer­sity from his home. As a for­eigner, I couldn’t un­der­stand why this harm­less stunt elicited out­rage. The wide­spread re­vul­sion I wit­nessed now strikes me as in­dica­tive of the role rivers and canals have played in the English imag­i­na­tion. Their tra­di­tional im­age is the op­po­site of those mul­ti­cul­tural cy­clists rac­ing along the banks of the

River Cam: rivers and canals re­ceived not only chem­i­cal de­posits from fac­to­ries, but also hosted the out­casts of English so­ci­ety. The rivers were a realm apart from the bu­colic “green and pleas­ant land” evoked by Wil­liam Blake and later poets.

The vaunted “mess­ing about in boats” that kept the mid­dle class en­ter­tained on week­ends oc­curred on the coasts, in small sail­ing ves­sels. River folk, by con­trast, moved about in house­boats or lived on barges be­cause they could not af­ford a house. “Growltiger was a Bravo Cat, who lived upon a barge,” T.S. Eliot wrote in Old Pos­sum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats (1939); “In fact he was the rough­est cat that ever roamed at large.”

Eliot’s rough cat cap­tured the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion’s con­cep­tion of the rough peo­ple who lived on barges. In E. Nes­bit’s ju­ve­nile clas­sic, The Rail­way Chil­dren (1906), Bill the Bargee is a ran­corous, “dis­agree­able” char­ac­ter. Nes­bit re­deems him, but only af­ter re­it­er­at­ing the stereo­type of the bargee. One of the pro­mot­ers of the vi­sion of Eng­land’s rivers as a repos­i­tory for so­ci­ety’s most alien­ated cit­i­zens was Charles Dick­ens. The open­ing scene of Our Mu­tual Friend (1865), the last novel Dick­ens com­pleted, de­picts a “griz­zled” pair, young Lizzie and her fa­ther Gaffer, who scour the banks of the River Thames for corpses. Lizzie and Gaffer earn their liv­ing by steal­ing money and jew­ellery from the bod­ies of those who have ended up dead in the wa­ter. Dick­ens de­scribes this fa­ther-and-daugh­ter team and their row­boat as “Al­lied to the bot­tom of the river rather than the sur­face, by rea­son of the slime and ooze with which [the boat] was cov­ered, and its sod­den state.” Through their plight, Dick­ens ex­presses his dis­en­chant­ment with Vic­to­rian so­ci­ety’s fail­ure to put pros­per­ity at the ser­vice of al­le­vi­at­ing poverty. More con­ser­va­tive writ­ers, such as Eliot, avoided so­cial de­bates and pre­ferred to high­light the scary im­ages of river peo­ple. While the sea sto­ries of Robert Louis Steven­son, C.S. Forester and John Mase­field thrilled younger male read­ers in late nine­teenth- and early twen­ti­eth-cen­tury Eng­land, there was lit­tle lit­er­ary ro­man­ti­ciza­tion of the rivers or canals. Nov­els that ex­alted Eng­land’s coun­try­side and his­tory as sources of mys­tic be­long­ing, such as the 1,200-page A Glas­ton­bury Ro­mance (1932) by John Cow­per Powys, re­served their dark­est scenes for the rivers. The land, in this novel, is the home of af­fec­tion­ately de­scribed flow­ers and plant life, and res­o­nant ru­ins such as those of Stone­henge; the river is the scene of the pro­tag­o­nists’ dis­cord and dark­est rev­e­la­tions.

Af­ter World War II, the wa­ter­ways re­ceded from Eng­land’s lit­er­a­ture. They put in a strik­ing ap­pear­ance in Gra­ham Swift’s novel Water­land (1983), where the sor­did acts with which they are as­so­ci­ated link them to Great Bri­tain’s post-1945 loss of its em­pire. In the late 1990s, when I lived near Re­gent’s Canal in the East London bor­ough of Hack­ney, I wit­nessed the ex­tinc­tion of the wa­ter­ways’ sta­tus as a refuge. In the midst of the most mul­ti­cul­tural neigh­bour­hood I’ve in­hab­ited—home to refugees and im­mi­grants from some of the world’s poor­est coun­tries—a dwin­dling com­mu­nity of work­ing-class white English peo­ple, clus­tered around the canal, per­pet­u­ated the cus­toms of Cock­ney cul­ture: fish­ing, eat­ing jel­lied eels, hang­ing out at the pub. Dur­ing the three years I lived in Hack­ney, these peo­ple be­came in­creas­ingly alien­ated, low­er­ing the Union Jack from the flag­pole over their pub to fly the na­tion­al­is­tic St. Ge­orge’s cross, and vot­ing for the an­ti­im­mi­grant Bri­tish Na­tional Party. Re­cently, when I re­turned to my old neigh­bour­hood, the Cock­neys, like the over­seas refugees and poorer im­mi­grants, were gone. Derelict fac­to­ries had given way to new flats, and restau­rants over­look­ing the wa­ter. Re­gent’s Canal re­sem­bled the River Cam, al­beit with fewer bi­cy­cles. The peo­ple I saw were well-ed­u­cated pro­fes­sion­als from many cul­tures. The English class sys­tem, which dis­patched the poor to the wa­ter­ways in search of so­cial free­dom or the means to earn a liv­ing, has been sur­passed by class di­vi­sions that are global. The new so­cial or­der of­fers op­por­tu­ni­ties to peo­ple from many parts of the world, but poorer lo­cals no longer find refuge on the wa­ter.

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