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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006
    The river: empire on ebb
     


    I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
    Is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed and intractable,
    Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
    Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
    Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
    The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
    By the dwellers in cities - ever, however, implacable.
    Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
    Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
    By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.


    William Raban begins his Thames Film with these words of T.S. Eliot, the poet's own voice from a crackly old recording as commentary on a boatman's-eye-view of the old river.

    Raban set out to replicate Thomas Pennant's voyage, London to Dover, for the same reasons:

    "'On Monday May 7th 1787 I took boat at The Temple stairs to make the voyage of the lower part of the Thames.'
    "Monday 17th May 1984. High water; 6:09. Crossing the time and place of your departure. Your voyage following the ebb tide down to the sea. Your search on the ebb flow. Looking for the signs of increase, production, exploration and empire."

    It seems significant that Raban's journey of exploration was on the ebb tide. His gorgeously-shot journey offers a picture of a river, still working, but tenuously, modestly. This is interspersed with archive shots of great liners, vibrant docksides - increase, production, and old Empire. The film is a fine exploration of what the river means now - and to me (anticipating my upcoming Humber to Mersey journey), it's a good resource for reflecting on what any great old river means now. It's a beautiful and powerful piece of work.

    While searching on Raban I discovered that this Thursday 4 May, UEL Docklands Campus are hosting Ports of Call, 'a new project being developed by the London East Research Institute at UEL with the Museum of London and local community organisations, with the aim of understanding patterns of social and economic change and rediscovering the rich industrial and maritime heritage of the Docks.' Raban's film is being shown, along with a mix of photography, discussion, poetry, oral history project presentations. If you live Thames-side and can get there, tell me all about it after - it looks fascinating.