The House In London Road 2.8

The powered tug was my grandfather’s speciality. He had an uncanny ability to manoeuvre the tug and the long tail of barges that followed it. Ten large barges all filled with coal or gravel or fishmeal represented a momentous mass on the crowded river. Even at slow speed the stopping distance could be measured in miles. The tug pilot had to think far ahead amid the traffic and turning currents.

Where this ability came from is a mystery. There was no precedent. It had appeared spontaneously.

To the end of his life my Grandfather retained a fixation on boats. For decades my grandparents took their holidays on cruise ships, and when they gave up cruising they took their holidays in an Art Deco hotel in Bournemouth that was designed to look like the cabin sections of an ocean liner.

There was also the boat in the garden. Every year this dinghy was turned upside down and re-varnished, and the mast and spars and oars were brought down from the garage loft for inspection while the sail was shaken out on the lawn and then rolled up again. As it happened it looked very similar to the dinghy in the Samuel Warburton watercolour, the one with the lone sailor sculling out towards the barges in Peel harbour, and to my mind it probably was the very same.

Some time in the 1920s my grandfather’s steam tug gave way to the first of a sequence of diesel-powered tugs, each one more powerful than the last, and each one called by the same name, which was Dart. Sometimes I was taken for a ride on what I suppose was the last of the tugs.

First there would be journey up to London on the train from Chalkwell to Fenchurch Street. The trains were still driven by steam locomotives. The carriages were the corridor-and-compartment type, with sliding doors for the compartments and a railway-specification kind of thick seat covering with yellow-stained linen napkins on the headrests. If we were seated close enough to the front of the train billows of smoke from the locomotive would race by the windows as we passed the ruins of Hadleigh Castle and on through Benfleet, Stanford-Le-Hope and the desolation of Rainham Marshes.

At Fenchurch Street the train would slow and stop in a cloud of smoke and a screeching of brakes. We would take the Circle Line underground two stops to Tower Hill where we would get out and walk to the office. Here in the City my father had special routes he liked to follow. Sometimes we walked around the Monument, the column that marks the supposed starting point of the Great Fire of London. Once we cut from one street to another through a warehouse where bales of spice were stacked. “I love this smell,” my father said as we strolled through a dense aroma of cinnamon and cumin: it was as if he had become another person, as there was no spice to be found in our house or in our food, and my father often made a point of saying that that he did not care what food tasted like.

In the office I was introduced to people I have forgotten, but unforgettably there was a VHF radio used to communicate with the pilots of the tugs. This seemed to me a piece of industrial magic that bespoke a world of sophistication. Although there were walkie-talkie radios advertised in the back of Marvel comics they were merely objects of longing in Britain where licences to use them were unobtainable under the British principle that everything is forbidden that is not specifically permitted. It is true there was a shop in Hadleigh that sold radio controlled model aircraft and also had a pair of walkie-talkies in the window, but it was understood that these were merely an incitement to dream, and beyond the law. My father spoke some incomprehensible lighterage-related words into the VHF and the tug pilot replied in kind, which only made the radio seem a greater mystery.

The tug itself was also something beyond normal experience. A Thames tug looks like a very small craft when seen from dry land, not much more than a raft with a funnel, as if there would not be room for normal sized people. Once on board it opens into additional dimensions. At the stern there is a cast iron capstan where the towing ropes are coiled, a thing of indescribable massiveness. It seemed almost dangerous to look at, like a Medusa – the warning was always given that the sweep of the towing ropes is a danger zone, and that once a man had his legs sliced away when a towing rope broke and switched back like a blade across the deck of the tug.

Inside the tug below the wheelhouse there is a cavity like a deep, deep cellar with an oily atmosphere as hot as a sauna. In this metal basement one of the deckhands would be cooking me a breakfast of bacon and eggs on a kerosene stove, which would then be served on a metal table with a plastic tablecloth while the huge bulk of the diesel engine throbbed and groaned nearby. I can’t actually remember anything about these trips apart from the clanking steel belly of the tug, lit by a bare lightbulb that pulsed in time with the sound of the engine. It was a place that seemed non-computable with its domestic kitchen mixed up with the industrial heft of the engine room, all rocking gently in the Thames current. It was like a dormitory, and a factory, and a submarine. And how could there even be so much space below the water?

This was more evidence, just like the house in London Road, of the limitless ramifications of the lives of the adults around me. I was deeply impressed by my father’s operations in the City, but even so it was not enough. Mentally I developed what I had seen in the office and on the river.

In the story I told myself and soon told to others, my father was one of the handful of big employers in London, or perhaps in the country. F. E. Walker and Co. Ltd, Barge Owners and Lightermen, more or less supported the economy with the help of perhaps one or two other big concerns such as Unilever and British Steel. If it were not for F. E. Walker and Co. men would not leave for work in the morning. Families would not have food to eat or radios to listen to. Hospitals would not open. Street lights would stand unlit. The world would freeze.

As it happened Unilever was a large concept in my mind, although I could not have said precisely what Unilever was. Every Christmas my grandparents would receive a package from Unilever – or rather ‘from the Lever Brothers’ as my grandfather put it.  This was an officialised form of Christmas present in a plain cardboard box, like an upmarket Red Cross parcel, packed with things like soaps and colognes and shampoos.

The opening of the Unilever parcel in the house in London Road was a climactic moment in the Christmas ritual. The duty belonged to my grandfather, who would pick out the protective corrugated cardboard packing and discard it on the floor, removing the contents item by item until they were all ranged on the dining table, like icons or fetishes. The amount and the quality of the tribute would be assessed and compared to what had been known in previous years.

The annual gift from Unilever was tangible proof of significance. But for the last few years at London Road it also became a source of unease. The packages were becoming smaller. It was unmistakeable. The cologne stopped featuring. The cosmetics and soaps became fewer. Finally there was a Christmas when a small box arrived, containing a single bar of soap.

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