AFTERLIFE OF CULTURE
The rivers in England’s cities once hosted the outcasts of society
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.