On the Thames towpath with Samuel Pepys

A handful of writers speak to us from the past with their lips pressed against our living ears – we feel their warm breath, smell it even. Often enough, I’ll be inexpertly toggling together my clothes when in the arch accents I attribute to Lord Byron a voice will lazily aspirate, “Ah! All this buttoning and unbuttoning … ” Or perhaps I’ll be all alone in an isolated house in winter, bereft of companionship, and I’ll pick up a volume of Montaigne’s Essays – all at once I am alone no longer, but with a wise and wryly sceptical soulmate. But for sheer vigorous immediacy – the past rubbing up against the present so strongly they threaten to become a single plosive present – there’s no beating Pepys.

No, there’s no beating Pepys – Pepys the irrepressible; Pepys the fusser, the philanderer, the political fixer, the amasser of pelf; Pepys the playgoer, the singer, the talker, the courtier – and most important – the walker. Pepys, the ambitious young man who, plagued by a gallstone, risked his life under the surgeon’s knife and survived (as he also survived the plague itself) to become a ripe old antiquarian; and of course, Pepys the diarist, whose workaday jottings between 1660 and 1669 give us perhaps the most veridical-possible portrait of … what? London in the Restoration period? A representative early-modern psyche? The very physiognomy of our own past? The narrative arc of a man succeeding? I think not – rather, what the diaries give us is, quite simply: Pepys, coalescing out of a flux of fugitive thoughts and impressions – a human being like us in many emotional respects, prey to the same lusts, insecurities and morbidities; yet with his head full of nothing at all we would recognise – a sensorium utterly alien to early 21st century, and preoccupations of an ineffable otherness.

In Seething Lane, where Pepys lived for the greater part of his time as a diarist, it must have … seethed. The City of London, now a Fabergé eggshell from which the human meat is blown anew each evening, was in the 1660s a teeming heap of humans baking, burning, making and rendering. The smells would have been barnyard as well as tanning yard – the timbre would have been emphatically organic. But now there is only the rumbling sough of traffic in the near-distance and a gaggle of middle-aged Scandinavian tourists, all Gore-Tex and Velcro, standing smoking outside the Double Tree by Hilton hotel and rasping the cold air with their fricatives. I have decided to walk in Pepys’s footsteps – although with no hope of catching up with him – as he rises early on any number of days in the 1660s, and sets out for Deptford, Greenwich, Woolwich and points still further downriver, in order to conduct his business for the naval office.

The Thames was London’s principal artery in Pepys’s day – and he might have hopped on and off any number of sculls and lighters plying for hire at the jetties that projected out into its noisome waters. Alternatively, to reach the Surrey side he would have had to backtrack to London Bridge, but I have the Victorian mock-Tudor bombast of the Tower’s outer precincts to scamper by, and the still more bombastic Tower Bridge to cross over. Pepys’s jottings seem just that: almost an aide memoire, set down in haste and thereby capturing his own hastiness – it has been left to others to arrange these psychic fulgurations into a satisfying dramatic arc, one in which effects can be attributed to causes, rather than stuff simply … happening.

It is happening in the little quarter of converted tea warehouses I call Conran Land – mid-afternoon francophiles are caffeinating under UV heaters outside the Pont de la Tour. Pepys was a francophile by accident, rather than design – being married to a Frenchwoman – but with his taste for a good chine of beef, I daresay he’d have dallied here if then was now. And if now was then? Why, there would be nothing here but a row of buildings stretching along the riverbank – behind them open land, pasturage and market gardens stretching as far as the village of Bermondsey to the south. Indeed, as I progress along the south bank, passing the site of Redriff Steps, where Pepys often made landfall before proceeding on foot, I am struck most forcibly by how little of what I’m seeing he would have seen.

The Mayflower Inn at Rotherhithe advertises itself as the site from which the Pilgrim Fathers set off for the New World, but since the 1620s it has been renamed and so extensively restored I doubt any of its fabric is original – the adjacent St Mary’s Church, while suitably ancient in origin, was completely rebuilt over a half-century after Pepys’s regular peregrinations. I could divert towards Bermondsey, where, just off the high street, I have a friend who lives in one of a small row of houses dating back to the 1650s – but as I press on along the riverbank I am more gripped by what Pepys would have made of all the strange shapes we have created with London stock brick, a building material which would have been, more or less, familiar to him.

Some of the old interwar walk-up council blocks have been “renovated” with postmodern accretions – outsize brickwork lunettes, keystones and quoins, that, while strongly reminiscent of Hawksmoor’s sublime fantasias, would probably perplex our man, since Pepys had been dead for 20 years when the first of the famous churches was built. So, there were few structures for him to gaze upon, and besides the occasional church spire, none with which to orient himself. For me, it is the parallax effect of the Shard shuffling about beyond the bricky horizon that lets me know which bend of the river I am coiling round. But Pepys would have been adrift in a landscape of marshland and mudflat, his ears full of waterfowl chattering, his nostrils open to the sweet breezes. He often left Seething Lane before dawn, but there would have been plenty of others up with the rising sun and about in the fields and meadows. In the mid-17th century, London had a population of a third of a million, and with the exception of le bon ton, they all walked.

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