THIS is the website of Richard Walker. I write for UK magazines and newspapers on films, books, ideas and places, and run an art gallery specialising in East Anglian art. Find me on Instagram @thefelixstoweluminous
We left the house in partially drugged state, and began to wander back down Thames Drive. The visit to the house in London Road had been unexpectedly deflationary. I had anticipated a rich experience. Perhaps I had supposed the house would be as it always had, a palace of variety. Instead we had been confronted with an empty container. I sensed that Roderick had not understood why I had brought him there.
There was a feeling that something now had to happen to provide meaning. I felt an unusual freedom together with an interesting sense of danger. Perhaps it was the nicotine circulating in my system like a conquistador gradually taking possession of a new world, occupying and assessing the virgin land for productivity and likely life-span.
Eventually the house at 1755 London Road was sold.
Immediately afterwards there was a period of stasis. The furniture had been divided up, some going to the small terraced house nearby where my grandparents had moved, reluctantly, some going into storage, some stacked in our spare room. The London Road house was due to be demolished, but as yet nothing had happened. Sometimes my father went there to do some job, perhaps disposing of yet more of the contents that my grandparents had accumulated over more than half a century. Perhaps the old house was in the legal limbo between contract and completion.
The keys to the old house hung in our cupboard under the stairs.
My grandfather’s business card read ‘F E WALKER Ltd – Lightermen and Barge Owners’. The profession of lighterman has now disappeared, having been supplanted by the shipping container. But in the early years of the last century the lighterman was a critical link in the chain of trade. Large ships could not access many of the wharves and warehouses on the shallow upper waters of the Thames. Cargoes had to be unloaded in deep water onto barges, which were then towed upriver by the lightermen.
In the earliest days Thames barges were sail boats like the sail barges in the Warburton painting, and the first barge that my grandfather bought with money borrowed from a brother was a sailing barge. This was soon replaced by the new technology of towed barges – forty foot long floating containers made of welded steel plate – and a steam-powered tug.
When the house in London Road was first built it stood alone in a field.
The London Road carves a scimitar-shaped curve out of the east end of London, running south from Poplar and Silvertown where my grandparents had spent their childhoods, down through Barking, Dagenham and the Rainham Marshes, and on up into the ragged Essex countryside skirting Basildon, Benfleet and Thundersley until the road reaches the Leigh cliffs.
In 1920 the road had not yet become the A13, or ‘The Arterial’ as it was known to us. By the time it reached Hadleigh Park it was an unmetalled track, and the Leigh cliffs were a belt of undeveloped land and fields with horses. It was here that my grandparents bought a small plot – although they could easily have bought a large one – and commissioned a villa that would look down the cliffs towards the Thames estuary.
In the morning Gerard was doing his exercises – squats, and stretches, accomplished with the help of a cigarette – in his underpants and singlet, outside the car in the grey light. I experienced that feeling of disorder that comes with sleeping upright, away from a known bed.
Our breakfast was what was left of the previous night’s supper – still delicious – and coffee that Gerard got from somewhere. Then we set off in the stringy grey light, and I think I fell asleep immediately. In any case I can remember little of the journey back to Brussels, apart from waking again in a Dutch town with high brick houses pressing in from every side, and there being no one about. Perhaps it was a Sunday.
These days in the car, spent mostly on the motorway, represented Gerard and Elsie’s summer holiday. We must have sped back southwards towards Brussels, on one of the early days of autumn, the heat giving way to the coolness of the sinister woodlands that surround the Belgian capital. I remember a feeling of something impending.
Gerard’s black Mercedes was a vehicle that seemed to be about a century old, and as big as a barn. It smelled deliciously of leather and cigarettes, and in a state of great excitement the five of us loaded ourselves into the saloon – along with packages of Elsie’s sandwiches filled with saucisson, or with Belgian jam which was nothing like the pasty English jam, and fresh waffles from the bakery, and bottles of juice and wine, and biscuits and a certain cheese of a deliciousness that I would never again experience.
We resumed school. I made half-hearted attempts to study French, although the language seemed to me a wall without footholds, a barrier that could not be scaled. I wondered how anyone ever got to the top of the wall and over into the boscage beyond. I wondered how Matthew and Laura had done it. It seemed an almost magical feat.
But in truth I did not try very hard, because in my heart I believed it was impossible to learn another language. The incident with the blonde girl’s father seemed to confirm the law of mutual incomprehension. And I had other things I would rather study.
There was one other name I learned: Overijise. Pronounced Over-raise.
It did not even sound like a place. It sounded like an action, to over-raise. It sounded like one of the pointless gymnasium tasks you were set in the PE lesson. One, two, three … and over-raise.
But Overijise was all the talk at the Woluwe primary school. The autumn term had just begun, it was still hot, and everyone kept repeating the name Overijise. Matthew explained we would be going to Overijise every day for two weeks, and that meant two weeks of swimming and games and no lessons.
“You will have to speak French,” my mother had warned. “Nobody will understand you if you don’t speak French.”
This, I admitted to myself, was a challenge. Speaking French was something that I had already struggled with for several years. French was on the syllabus at my prep school. The French teacher who was improbably called Mademoiselle De La Rue – a middle-aged woman from Lyons with a fascinating enormous bust – had explained that what I had to understand was that a foreign language was “not a code”.
In a book called The Gay Science Nietzsche writes ‘What if a demon crept after you one day and said “This life, as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live again and again; and there will be nothing new in it, but pain and every joy and every thought and sigh will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust.”’
The need to repeat is seated as deeply as anything is seated. Perhaps the walls of the city do shake when the mode of the music changes. But when is that? For many people, perhaps most people, the music of time is a fugue of just two or three related motifs, repeated, inverted, restated in different keys, but always the same motifs. In childhood the experiential impact of days and places and people is huge, but they are usually the same people, the same places, and days of repetitions.
The house at number 1755 London Road always loomed over our lives. It was a presence even stronger than our own house, a crowded inventory of many things that seemed to tell us who we were, a memory palace reaching far back in time to some ancient period of foundation. So at least it seemed to me as a child when every Saturday afternoon we made the journey from our house to London Road, stopping at Woolworths on the way.
One Saturday afternoon in Woolworths when I was still very small I became separated from my parents.
One evening in the mid 1960s my mother announced that two girls would be arriving the next day. They would stay with us for a while, she said. She did not know how long. “They need to have a sort of holiday,” she said.
I did not have many friends. There was Steve in Hall Park Avenue, who attended my school and who had a copy of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Steve was a conformist like me. We would conspire together to do things – such as running away to somewhere – that we knew would never actually happen. We would also look at the women’s magazines such as Elle and Nova that Steve’s mother collected, which had information about girls that I was unable to get elsewhere.
In the photographs of my own parents’ wedding there are no pictures of my father’s parents. I was told later that for days before the wedding my grandmother had become increasingly hysterical, and in the end retreated to her bedroom at the top of the house at 1755 London Road. On the day she refused to leave the house and both she and my grandfather missed the wedding.
Although I knew the exact location of the house at 1755 London Road, I was never sure where George and Grandma’s house was. The situation was complicated because they had moved from place to place before ending up in this Essex suburb. To my knowledge no one else in my family had ever moved – why would they? But my maternal grandparents had moved from somewhere in Kent where my grandmother ran a boarding house, to somewhere else where she ran a shop. My only memory of the boarding house – apart from not liking it for reasons I cannot remember – is of stairs with linoleum instead of carpet and the frosted glass panel above the front door with the name of the house – ‘Rocklands’ – visible from the stairs in reversed lettering.
There was another significant house in our lives, which was the house of my maternal grandparents. This house was small and modern, as bare and antiseptic as an operating theatre. Compared to the cluttered house at number 1755 it seemed something like a companion moon, distant and dwarfish and cold.
My grandparents’ house at 1755 London Road still seems present to me, as if I could walk through the shadowed corridors today and throw open the brocaded curtains.
I can see the ancient dust that would swirl above the dining table with its green velveteen cover, descending on the desiccated fruit in the fruit bowl (my grandparents believed that fresh food such as fruit could be displayed but was dangerous to eat – the only really safe food was tinned food, or biscuits, or else something that had been cooked for many hours).
Planks of dusty light would populate the room. They would fall on the coloured cut glass vases on the sideboard, vases that themselves contained more dust and dead flies. They would play on the yellowing embossed wallpaper and the pre-war fittings for gas lighting. They would touch shelves where herbal-smelling cigar boxes and Dresden china figures stood, and pass over the framed photographs of Thames barges and tugs of the kind that my grandfather’s company owned and operated in the waters below Tower Bridge. There were no books – in another room my grandmother kept a library of Christian evangelical religious books and pamphlets, but books of any other kind were not to be found and to the very end of his life my grandfather maintained as a point of honour that he had never read a book.
For the Felixstowe Book Festival I talked to George Alagiah, TV presenter, frontline reporter and author of the South Africa-set novel The Burning Land.
For the Felixstowe Book Festival I talked to Martin Bell, reporter, politician and Unicef ambassador about his latest book War & The Death Of News.
The Covid-19 crisis is approaching its economic peak. Most Western economies are largely closed. Stock markets have been in freefall for several weeks, and despite recent rallies may yet test deeper lows. Companies are in shell-shocked reaction mode, scrambling to protect what remains by cutting commitments across the board. Yet that instinctive reaction – to conserve by reducing risk and locking away cash – might well be the worst possible thing they could do …
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