Wednesday 14 June 2017

The Bridge and the River

The Thames is an ancient song.

Anyone who has ever raced over London Bridge burdened with legal papers desperately looking for a taxi will know this. The song might be that you were late for Court.

Later your first Judge asked you “Are you a carpenter or a joiner Mr Mathews?” You were dumbfounded, and suddenly your entire legal career crumbled into ashes. Nothing in Law School had prepared you for a curve ball like that one. Then he kindly explained that I had a pen behind my ear. My first judicial joke! I laughed weakly as the cold sweat dried.

The Thames had a little chuckle as I walked over London Bridge at 10 o’clock in the morning. The briefcase in my hands felt light now. I almost flung my papers into the river in delight as I watched the waters flashing. Then common sense prevailed and I went back to the office.

Time passed. I got a job in Hackney working for a community law centre. We gave free legal advice, and that was often extremely stressful, but over all the work we have done felt redemptive.

Every day I would wait on London Bridge in the morning for the Number 48 bus that would take me sedately to Hackney, and every evening I would cross again to get the train to Streatham.

The river was blue and green, grey and brown. Sometimes it was silver, and sometimes it was fire. Sometimes I was depressed and limped over with the other commuters, sometimes I paused on the middle of the bridge and looked down the barrel of the river at distant Norway. Sometimes I went to a Goth club in Angel and splurged a taxi and as we crossed the river, she crooned to me. “Nat you silly boy, get your head down.” Eyeliner running I saw Sol rise over the City and the sparkling river, and would have said, we can take Mammon.  

On 7/7 there was a big huge traffic jam on London Bridge that slowed things down a lot. I was going out of my mind because seriously I had read my newspaper and I have an extremely low attention span. No mobile phone, not best qualified to live in London.

It was not until we reached Lower Clapton that we knew about the bombings.

On the way back the buses stopped and we had to walk. Thousands of people flowing south towards the river, in a state shock.  Yet we were magnificent.  I remember a tall Jamaican guy giving his phone to a tiny Polish girl he had never met so that she could call her mum in Krakow. There was another guy who had to get to South London to pay cash to labourers who depended on him.

We were frightened, but we were speaking to each other, asking about each other’s families. We were in solidarity and we became friends. The police officers were yellow boulders who directed us, and
we were glad to see them. The crowd that had ignored each other in the morning when they travelled north walked shoulder to shoulder over London Bridge in the afternoon as it travelled south.

The sun was shining and the water was serene. The guy with the cash said he would walk to Brixton, no point getting a train. We stopped halfway over, and the river told us this:

“Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so

I had not thought death had undone so many. “

Time passed.

The world went bust and it became common again to see men in sleeping bags on the south side. Money became unavailable for housing, the disabled were sifted and winnowed, evictions soared as rents rose and families spent months, then years in squalid emergency housing. The mad became madder, the weak became weaker. Mould in the homes of overcrowded homeless families became the most common problem.  

The river was gunmetal and the rain was pelting down when one of the homeless guys told me with deadpan British humour, he was sorry there wasn’t snow, it would be nice if there was a white Christmas.

Three days before the Brexit vote a bunch of pantywaists set up their pitch on the south side, Conservatives for Remain. Brash young men in office shirtsleeves rolled up, facing the river of people coming over the bridge, tired, bored, confused, worried. I cheered them like brothers.

On the day that a political poster came out showing refugees huddled like animals on the Serbian border an MP was stabbed to death by a deranged man full of hate, full of fear.

Jo Cox had lived on a houseboat on the river, not so far from the bridge. At her death her children and widower crossed the waters and spoke to all. There is more that unites us than divides us. The river listened, or we listened to the river.  

Time passed.

Hate crimes grew after the Brexit vote. There was a feeling among hospital doctors that they were not welcome.  People got abused on the street. Mosques and community centres were defaced. People distrusted their neighbours.  Nurses stopped coming for the NHS. We grew mistrustful. “To cox “ entered our language, “ to knife. “

Still the river flowed over the bridge and under the bridge.

Then the murders on Westminster Bridge and on London Bridge.

You have all read about the nurse who ran towards danger, the Romanian who hit the murderer with a box, the bouncer that threw pint glasses, the policeman who fought a knife with a truncheon. The banker who died defending a woman with his skateboard.

The terrorist attacks closed down London Bridge. Later it opened again.

And afterwards when I travelled to work there was a sea of flowers. Somebody has placed boxes of post it notes and scotch tape, and the public was sticking post it notes to London Bridge. From Colombia to Singapore to Malaysia, from Italy to Greece, from Melbourne to Malmo, the message was love.

“London, love will conquer all, and you have a bucketful” read one. “London Bridge is not falling down” said another. Under the flowers someone had placed a doll of a British Bulldog, but also a can of London Pride (a beer).

Later, we heard of other hate crimes. In some cases random racial abuse. In others, people getting hurt.

I asked the guy who hasn’t got a home, and who loves snow instead of rain, and he said the flowers showed a lot of respect, but he thought the hippies had taken over.  He was glad he had missed the big parade, but he still hadn’t got a home.

Love. So easy to promise, so hard to perform.

 A few days later Muslim women gave away roses on the bridge, and people hugged and cried and were respectful. They were our London roses. Peace not war.

The river passed under our feet, and if she has a secret we all can learn, I wish we could all learn and understand it together.

Full of blood, and full of light, and thanks to river cleaning initiatives, full of fish, the river passed on. We will cross over the river on a bridge built by the Romans 2000 years ago in a place called London, and we will try to do better tomorrow.

Let us be a better bridge across this river.

Datta. Dayadhvan. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih.


  1. Brilliant Nat: keep going and every week light us all up with a cool remark about what really matters in life... where we all give ourselves to serve all of us not just us... Dad

  2. That's lovely. I'm very glad I stopped and took time to read it all. Thank you! - Trish

  3. I have been reading your blog for a long time now. And I always miss it - Maria

  4. There is something remarkable about you.The ability to show your human side is not commonly seen. Thankyou for being you. You have entered my life at the right time. I hope change can embrace all of our hearts one day so that we can understand unconditional love. keep doing great things Nathaniel! Claudia M.