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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

The London Logs: Jonathan Scheer’s The Thames

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | August 5th, 2012 | Comments No Comments

It’s pretty challenging to buy a birthday gift for someone you’ve never met. But Emiko and Stephen – the loving couple I am housesitting for this summer – left me an unexpected and very thoughtful gift of The Thames: England’s River by Jonathan Schneer.
While I feel Schneer at times stretches to weave river happenings into England’s history, he sure does a fine job of arguing that the river is inextricable with London’s political, economic, social and cultural history.

From the frost fairs he so eloquently describes to the fall of tanker traffic that led to the demise of East London, Schneer runs this river through London’s economic ups and downs, through England’s love affair with international commerce, through the UK’s political history. After standing in the places he mentions, I can vividly picture his settings, and after reading about places I haven’t yet visited, I’ve expanded my “must see” list.

Frost fairs, by the way, were markets and mini-carnivals held on the frozen river from possibly as early as the 1500s to the early 1800s. When London Bridge was rebuilt with fewer arches in 1831, the river ceased to pile enough packed ice around its fewer arches and the downriver area never froze solid enough to hold the hordes of people, horses, tents and whatnot for a fair!

Before that, as Schneer writes: “The old [London] bridge, made of stone and timbers, with towers, houses, shops, even a chapel on it, and the famous entrance with heads of traitors impaled upon iron spikes, was the main entrance into London from the south…”

The history of the East London docks is equally precarious: In the mid-1960s, when cargo shipping was transformed to rectangular cubes that could be moved by cranes directly from ship to truck, dockhands were displaced and disempowered. This led to major dock strikes in the US – San Francisco, Long Beach – and was further devastating in the UK because the newly reconfigured boats were too deep to make it to London. They unloaded downstream – where the unions were not as strong – and that devastated the traditional East London ports, the workers and their families, and all the support businesses (on-the-ground transportation, businesses that catered to the dockworkers and transporters, etc, etc, etc.).

It would be 20 years before political and economic energy would be spent on East London. In the interim, it was said that crime was so rife in East London that one lost a year of life for every Tube stop one lived east of Central London, according to “Europe Through the Backdoor” Rick Steves.

Redevelopment started – a mixed bag, depending on the type of job one had – financiers did well, dockworkers not so well.

The Thames: England’s River was published in 2005, before East London landed the 2012 Olympics. I’d love to hear what Jonathan Schneer has to say about the £9.1 billion infusion into this area for housing, health care and education! My personal observations are that the money will help an important — but isolated — area, not the greater community.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading a lovely character sketch of London through the eyes of its “liquid history,” as John Burns described the River Thames.
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Category: London, Olympics
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