Bow Bells

One of the few builders on our house who is not from central Europe is Pete the carpenter, who is from Plaistow. He no longer lives in Plaistow but he was brought up a block away. His family moved out to Essex some years ago to make room for the likes of me. He told me of his apprenticeship as a carpenter. (If he had been talking to the Gentle Author his eyes would have been shining but he wasn’t and they didn’t. They were fine eyes for all that: dulled by alcohol, but subtly so.)

We used to go down to the River, he said, where they brought in the timber. It was just down on the quay in Silvertown. They would unload it in a state that it still needed to be seasoned. Magnificent boles presided over the quayside, sometimes for years, pickling gently in the London fogs.

Was it wet from the sea, I asked.

Yes, sometimes the wood had been hauled behind the ships, through the sea.

It stood on the quayside often for years until it was ready to be used for building. Some of the offcuts Pete and his fellow apprentices were allowed to practise on, to learn their trade.

I asked if Silvertown was then still Chinese. It had, I knew, been London’s original Chinatown.

Not really, he said. Most of the Chinese had moved west by then. Driven out by people like you, he said. (Had I been the Gentle Author he would have said it with a twinkle.) There were some food emporia, and behind closed doors there was still opium to be smoked and congenial company to smoke it in.

Not for us apprentices, that, of course, he said.

I thought of Mr Lee and I smiled to myself. Not everything had changed.

Pete the carpenter and the landfall for his timber would have been up-river from the mouth of the Lea, though I suppose that in their day shipments of timber could have come ashore at the old East India Dock. Nowadays containers of MDF are craned over the ship’s rail in Felixstowe.

Musing on this I took the track from the East India Dock to Trinity Buoy Wharf and the mouth of the Lea, which at that point is called Bow Creek. As I say there were signs of Hacknification: a phenomenon still mercifully rare in our part of East London; there is wall art, a giant fish, and when I got to the wharf itself an enclave where young people were enjoying a decent merlot.

This used to be an area of unparalleled squalor, even by the standards to which the Victorian poor submitted. There was a tragedy there, which gives some idea. A pleasure boat was run into by a steamer and seven hundred people were killed: many on impact, but most died because, when they entered the water, so, by a bad chance, did a discharge from a local sewer and they died suffocated by human shit.

There was of course a similar disaster, not so many years ago and further upstream. The Marchioness, another pleasure boat, was struck by a dredger, the Bowbelle, and many people were killed. Because of Health & Safety, however, they died shit-free.

Both stories have great emotional resonance. They disturb the even flow of time. I remember a story of a man watching the Thames and remarking to a friend: “Isn’t this where that pleasure boat sank and all those people were killed?” And the friend looked bemused, because the Marchioness tragedy was to take place a week later.

At the end of the quay there is a lighthouse. This in itself is startling: lighthouses are rare in London, to say the least. It presides over the expanse of the river – considerably greater here than in central London – and the O2, baleful on the opposite bank. I could see people walking on the roof of the O2. Lucky people to be doing so!

Lighthouses too have great emotional resonance.

The door was open and I went in. It turned out to be the home of the Longplayer project. Jem Finer, who created the music for most of the Pogues’ best songs – Shane McGowan wrote the words – has created a very long piece of music. Its performance started with the start of the Millennium and will persist until its end. The sound comes from metal bowls, as used by the Tibetans. You can see them there and they are very elegant. The sequences are created by computers in accordance with Jem Finer’s program. They say that it never repeats, but I’m not sure what that means; obviously some short combinations must repeat. There are strategies to cope with the failure of individual computers or of the electric supply. Sometimes people take over for a bit. You can read about it here.

This might have been a conceptual adventure where what mattered was the persistence of the piece over such a long period, rather than the experience of the sound. I went up to the listening area. This is in the top of the lighthouse where once the lamp was. Through the latticed window you can see the O2 and Docklands and you can imagine the music continuing on its placid way when the O2 has flapped away in unseasonably high winds and Canary Wharf has ivy growing up it. And the music itself is beguiling. It needn’t have been but it is. I sat there until the sun started to go down. Then I went home and played it from the website.

I have no idea why a sequence of notes generated by a computer should be so affecting. Maybe it was the lighthouse and the dead pleasure-seekers separated by a hundred years or more. Maybe it’s simply Jem Finer’s musical genius. After all, Fairytale of New York has great emotional resonance too.


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