Sometimes at night, if I’m feeling restless and it’s too late to walk to Sainsbury’s for a ginger ale, I walk down past the BFI South Bank to the Jubilee walkway along the river. Usually the only people still out are the security guards at the theatre spaces and a few delinquent teenagers. And a smattering of tourists, couples, and tourist couples.
My favorite spot at South Bank, Gabriel’s Wharf, feels a little too desolate and unstable at night for my liking; instead I go in the opposite direction toward Westminster Bridge. During the day, this area is jam packed with too many people. At night, it feels like mine. I go down past the big black book-filled bins of the South Bank Book Market, the graffitied skate park, Festival Pier. Past the restaurants at Royal Festival Hall and Foyle’s book store. Under the Jubilee Bridge, where the trains pass from Waterloo to Charing Cross and beyond.
There are trees here. Not a whole lot of them, but there are trees nonetheless. And benches of all kinds; I love benches. Beside these trees and benches, a few of the inlaid stones that pave the walkway have inscriptions on them. All contain bits of poetry in block capitals, mostly about rivers. Between the Jubilee Bridge and the London Eye is my favorite one, with lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.
I stand there and reread this several times, breathing the words in and out.
Then, sometimes, I keep walking past the Eye, and stop at the benches near the London Aquarium. I sit, or lean on the massive stone parapet, and look at Parliament and Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, all lit up, golden and green and glowing. Electric lights are marvelous. The sound of the gentle rivertide of the Thames beating against the boats and the embankment let me pretend I’m home on the pier in Island Heights, if I so choose. It’s something I can depend on always being there – the lights, the water – it’s an anchor.
Sometimes I wish someone was with me to share the simple beauty of these moments. Sometimes I am glad I am alone.
I went a little earlier than is my habit tonight. There was a man standing beneath the Eye in the halo of its dimly purplish lights with an acoustic guitar, a mic, and a small amp. As I passed him the first time, he stood there, in a cowboy hat and denim jacket, singing “Stand By Me” with a lady friend. On my way back, he was crooning “Hotel California” by himself, to virtually no one.
I wonder if he is happy.