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Down in the River

My friend Jack and I walked around the river Thames last Sunday. The greyness of London at this time of year soaks through your pores. Last Winter I wrote a piece of music, called ‘The White Sky’. With all that anaesthetic blankness overhead, Summer can feel as distant as a house you you moved out of years ago.

I have written before about the South Bank, and how much I love its blend of expansive modernist architecture, ragged but lovely humanity, and the timeless industry of the River. Its faded and renovated squalor embodies the grandeur and the humanity of the capital. When I was young, my parents used to take me to see Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the Royal Festival Hall every year. Even back then, I felt how strong the character of the South Bank was: this thriving concentration of artistic output in the midst of urban dereliction (it used to be a lot seedier twenty years ago, believe me). Nowadays, I like to meet up with friends there. There is always something interesting (and free) to stumble upon such as a musical performance in the RFH lobby or a photo exhibit in the National Theatre balconies. It is the quality and the abundance of this sort of thing where you really see the advantage of living The Big Smoke.

So we wandered round the Thames. We met a girl on (what used to be called) the Hungerford footbridge who was trying to sell dream-catchers. She was somewhat furtive about the fact she wanted to money for them. Jack fancied her. I have no idea what a dream-catcher is. At the foot of the bridge we went straight in for a free hug (were they the same troop as at Glastonbury?), watched the skateboarders, and discussed Joanna Newsom. A girl was down on the beach beneath the Oxo tower, combing for something or other. Then Jack mugged a child, and we had a look at some more stuff, and parted company.

With some more time to kill I headed back onto the bridge by Embankment for the second time that day. It was getting dark and I was tired so I stopped to listen to a morbid yet persistent steel-drummer. The West Indian clangs sat weirdly with the gloom, but it was a nice way to take in the end of the day over the Thames, since I was cold and tired. Looking across to St Pauls, the Barbican, and the Natwest Tower made me think about the persistent grind of London. Working and surviving in this city can really feel draining although people do not often like to admit it. Actually, come to think of it, sometimes it’s all we talk about, perhaps because it is something we all share. The city looks awesome of a Winter dusk. Shelley wrote of the eponymous mountain in his poem ‘Mont Blanc’:

Power dwells apart in its tranquillity,

Remote, serene, and inaccessible

The lines could have been written for those fortress casinos in the square mile. If good old Percy Bysshe were writing today, he might well write about the city instead of Mont Blanc, and he could have picked a worse spot than the Hungerford bridge to reflect man’s relation to the vast and awful power down the river.

I looked over to the terrace on the South Bank where the free-huggers had been. The crowds had mostly gone home. It gets cold down there when the sun goes. I noticed there was an arc of people performing. The double amputee at the end of the bridge was still begging after hours in the bitter evening, poor sod.

I approached the horseshoe of singers by the river bank. There were a few people stopped to listen despite the cold so I took a seat on a bench. Close up you could see that they were a dozen or so young ladies probably around the age of twenty. I realised they were American immediately when they started to sing. Not from their accents. Everyone sings in American accents. The clue was in their quality and understanding of performance, of which Americans are the masters. They are just better than everyone else at entertainment. It’s like when you see Russian ballet dancers, Italian drivers, Australian cricketers, Spanish Flamenco dancers, British football hooligans, French pickets, or German nudists: as far and wide as you travel, when you see one there is something inside you which clicks and thinks: ‘They’re taking it to a whole different level. Shit, that comes from the source.’

The girls (a troupe from Princeton Universty NJ called The Tigressions) were singing a capella standards, and their own arrangements of modern pop hits. Rich harmonies, perfect tuning, packaged with all that American charm. Perfect to warm the proverbial cockles. I recall them singing an arrangement of ‘Happy Ending’ by Mika. It was surprising to hear something so luscious and personable amidst all the cold riverside concrete. Singing just for the joy of singing. No pretensions to fame and stardom, that bane of true music. Just a group of young ladies on holiday in a ridiculously grey city, enjoying singing with each other.

There were others who were enjoying this spontaneous performance as well. I noted a slightly gruff looking cyclist who seemed absorbed by the music. He sat there intently, taking it all in, clutching his bike frame. Also there was a little girl who went right up to the singers and stood right in front of them. She was young and uninhibited, bathing in the overlapping vocal lines. I hope the young ladies from New Jersey enjoyed their vacation in London. At least they looked like they were having fun, despite the gloom. It is indeed cool that they were able to contribute to and even become part of the life of the South Bank in their visit. I was grateful, at least.