Ten days ago, I went to Greenwich University to discuss a project for a new journal which will allow students to publish articles alongside academics and get equal recognition for their work. This was exciting in itself and an initiative which is greatly overdue: for as long as I can remember, academics have delighted to ‘co-author’ works with students and grab most of the credit as a reward for their ‘names’, while allowing the students themselves to do the donkey work (although I should add that there are some honourable exceptions and also that one or two other journals already exist that are published along the same principles). I shall probably write more about this project when it is up and running.
Greenwich University is a vibrant place. It has long been the home of the Maritime College: there have been naval buildings there since Elizabethan times. Adjacent is Deptford, famous for its docks and as the place where Christopher Marlowe, allegedly a spy for the Elizabethan government, was murdered. Greenwich itself is the final resting place of the Cutty Sark. The university dates from the mid-nineteenth century, though some of the buildings are much older. It stands proudly against a steep curve of the Thames, alongside a stretch of the river that is uncompromisingly wide and majestic. This is frequented by both barges and pleasure boats, which reminded me a little of the river traffic in Shanghai.
The university is housed in a series of white stone buildings with evocative names such as Queen Anne Court, Queen Mary Court, King William Court and the Dreadnought Library. Much more recently, one of the buildings has been dedicated to the memory of Stephen Lawrence. There is a maritime museum, admission to which is free, and across the road another museum which is currently hosting an exhibition of J.M.W. Turner’s sea paintings. Unfortunately, I had no time to visit either of them, but I shall be returning later in the summer and plan to be much better-organised then.
I know from personal experience that, as well as being cosmopolitan, Greenwich students are extremely switched on, because for the last several years I have recruited student panels from among their ranks for some of the conferences and seminars that I have organised. Like students everywhere, they seem to prefer to wear a uniform. This spring, for the girls, it is cropped tops and pale (very short) denim shorts, these worn with thick tights and brightly-coloured canvas ankle boots, and, for the boys (many of whom sport Pete Doherty-style pork pie hats), skinny jeans with long plaid shirts.
Not to be confused with the ‘real’ students was the seemingly endless procession of secondary school parties that were doing a tour of the campus and its attractions. Each was (more or less) in the care of two or three harassed teachers, though the pupils were without exception doing their best to ignore the latter; they were slouching along at a snail’s pace, spread out across the pathways two or three abreast, just like the pupils I have seen dawdling to and from our local secondary school. The real-deal students, by contrast, were marching along rapidly and purposefully, busy, busy, busy, laughing and chatting, with too much to do but taking it all in their stride. A couple of years ago they were probably staunch members of the slow-stroll brigade. Is university really so effective at inspiring them to action, I wonder, or are those having to endure the ignominy of supervision just trying to drive their teachers berserk by taking the longest possible time to trail from A to B?
Despite the somewhat alarmist weather reports about the ‘Stage 10’ smog in London which I heard being discussed on the Tube and elsewhere during my journey, it was a beautiful, clear, sunny spring day in Greenwich and at least five degrees warmer than the dank and misty Yorkshire that I’d left at 7 a.m. Spring may be coming slowly, if surely, to the North, but I can bear witness that in London and environs it is now full-on.
My meeting about the journal slid by all too quickly, three hours gone in an Augenblick. I’d hoped to have time for at least a quick peek at the Cutty Sark before I left, but my watch told me that I had less than an hour to get back to King’s Cross if I were not to endure the combined wrath and triumph of the ticket collector as he rejected my fixed-time ticket and forced me to buy another. I’ll therefore have to save that pleasure for next time, too.
However, as I was waiting at the traffic lights in one of the busy main streets that threads through the old town of Greenwich, I happened to look back and see the masts of this historic ship rising surreally above the buildings and a row of buses, as if it had just joined the queue of local available public transport. I took a quick snap before I hurried on.
On my travels in other countries, some of the most evocative moments have been spent contemplating rivers. I’ve stood on O’Connell Bridge in Dublin and watched the (on that occasion very murky) waters of the Liffey and remember thinking, as I looked into its Guinness-coloured depths, that it must have been entirely James Joyce’s poetic imagination that produced such a beautiful name as Anna Livia Plurabelle. I’ve seen dhows swooping along the Nile, their single white sails bending gracefully to the breeze. I’ve marvelled at the massive businesslike barges speeding along the Danube, powerful and swift as crocodiles on the move. The bridges and embankments of the Seine are still vividly precious for their romance on our honeymoon. Closer to home, as I’ve written in a previous post, I’ve admired the spectacular night-time views from Waterloo Bridge in London as the Thames makes its sudden sweep to the East. And I still feel great affection for the dear, dirty River Welland that threads its way through the town of Spalding, much humbler than these great waterways, though still, in its day, a significant bringer of prosperity to the people who dwelt nearby, just like all the great rivers of the world.
Unsurprising then, that I should have been captivated by the magic of the great Yangtze, the fourth longest river in the world, as it pours itself at Shanghai into the East China Sea. Wide and fast-flowing, the Yangtze has brought traders to Shanghai for thousands of years, making it one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities long before the rest of China emerged from its self-imposed insularity.
Even the Yangtze’s much smaller tributary, the Huangpu River that cuts right through the city centre, is a majestic waterway, which I visited first on a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon when people were promenading along the Bund, the waterfront area opposite Pudong, on a built-up walkway that enables walkers to get close to the river’s banks and where festive street food stalls abound.
Two days later, on a bitterly frosty but fine, clear evening, I was taken to the Huangpu’s junction with the Yangtze. On both occasions I was able to watch barge after nimble barge (they are longer and slenderer than the ones on the Danube) power by, almost as if in convoy, while the waters displaced by their passage lapped energetically against the shore. The barges and other ships are lit up in the evening, as is the spectacular Shanghai skyline that forms a backdrop to the Yangtze. The result is a profusion of golden lights that disport themselves against the inky blackness of the waters. The scene is dynamic, full of energy and passion, the legacy of very many years of trade, hard-won prosperity, daring, risk and chance and, I’m certain, not a little skulduggery and murder. The effect is by no means cosy, but it is exhilarating! At the back of my mind lurked the half-remembered knowledge that, in years gone by, to be ‘Shanghaied’ meant to be kidnapped and forced to serve as a sailor on board one of the many ships that plied their trade to the East and, ultimately, to Shanghai. I could imagine someone creeping up on a strong young man as he stood, unsuspecting, and rendering him unconscious; imagine his anguish as he awoke, his head sore, far out at sea, unable to tell his family and friends what had befallen him… that he was on his way to China.
Every river has a personality, which I think was James Joyce’s point about the Liffey. The Yangtze’s is particularly complex: on the one hand, it courses past Shanghai, bearing its gift to this great city of enterprise and generations of toleration for many creeds and cultures; on the other, it penetrates deep into a country that until recent times was secret, withdrawn, enclosed and shut away from all outside influence.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
I’ve just been in London for three days. It was mostly for the day job: I’m afraid the lazy days of August are now a distant dream. Autumn, with its increased workload and vigorous round of conferences and exhibitions, has now kicked in with a vengeance. The nights are also getting longer, of course, and on Wednesday evening there was a decided nip in the air. Nevertheless, I was having a wonderful time. After five meetings with colleagues and friends (none of them arduous, it should be said, and all of them interesting), I rounded off the day in style by meeting my friend Sally, with whom, as I’ve mentioned before, I stay when I’m in London, and going to see Top Hat at the Aldwych.
Although I’ve seen many (probably too many!) amateur musical productions, I don’t think I’ve ever been to one in the West End before. It was truly breathtaking. Top Hat was made famous by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for whom it was written, and first produced in 1935. The Aldwych version is faithful to the original – I’m glad to say that it’s not a spiky modern take on what has always been intended to be a slice of sumptuous fantasia – and I’d guess, although I don’t know, probably even follows the same choreography. The dancing was superb. The lead roles were played by Kristen Beth Williams and Gavin Lee, and to my eye – although I daresay this will be considered sacrilege in some quarters – their dancing was every bit as fluid, graceful and amazing as Fred’s and Ginger’s (which I’ve seen on film). The dancing by every member of the cast was of the same high standard. The costumes were magnificent – Williams wore at least ten outfits on stage, each one more glamorous than the last – and the two-tiered set was extremely clever, a brilliant way of making the most out of what is in fact quite a small early twentieth century stage.
The theatre was packed, and not just with people of a certain age. It set me wondering why a musical with no ‘hidden message’, whose appeal resides in the extravagance of everything about it, from the virtuoso performances to the clothes and make-up, should be so popular. I thought that it might be because we’re all fed up with so-called austerity, and seeking a break from it. Spending the evening in a make-believe world where money is no object and everyone is talented and beautiful certainly did the trick for me. I guess that this may be the reason why the original Top Hat went down such a storm, too. The glamour and genius of Fred and Ginger were obviously powerless to dispel the dark shadows that were gathering over Europe in 1935, but they must have given their audiences a night off from thinking about them.
Understandably, the Aldwych doesn’t allow photographs to be taken during performances, so I hope that my words and your imagination will supply the deficit. I have, however, included a photograph of another heart-stirrer, the view from Waterloo Bridge. It was approaching midnight when I was walking over the bridge to catch the train back to Sally’s, so I managed to capture only a fraction of its magic. It’s a place that never ceases to delight me when I’m there. The sweeping views of the Thames, the elegant and floodlit buildings, the reflection of the lights on the water and the London Eye (which is larger and more substantial than the other Ferris wheels I’ve written about) always make me feel proud of our capital city. London can be grey and dingy, mean and impoverished, just like all big cities, I suppose: but on Waterloo Bridge it twinkles and shimmers with the same aplomb and grace that the dancers showed in Top Hat.
As some of my readers with good memories may recall, DI Tim Yates has a sister who lives in Surbiton. So far, his sister has appeared only in In the Family and has no name; she makes no appearance in Almost Love. However, she is a benign, if shadowy, presence waiting in the wings and (I am certain) will crop up in a more central role in a future book.
As I’ve said before, topography and a sense of place are important to me, both in my own writing and in that of others, and I therefore try to place my characters in settings that I know well. I’m familiar with Surbiton because my long-suffering friend Sally lives there. She has allowed me to stay in her lovely turn-of-the-twentieth-century house on almost all of my visits to London over the past fourteen years and she makes strenuous occasions like the London Book Fair tolerable during the day and a joy when I return to her house in the evenings for conversation, wine and good food.
Surbiton is itself an interesting place. It is the quintessential English suburb – even its name suggests it. If you were to hear of it without knowing its location, you would not conjure up an image of a Fenland village or a rugged Scottish town. It sounds like what it is; it even has an equally suburban twin: Norbiton. The twins have mellowed together, their streets laid out and their houses and gardens maintained much as they were in late Victorian times. Even the shops have old-fashioned façades. You feel you might meet Mr Pooter coming round the corner, or see Jerome K Jerome and his friends boating on Surbiton’s stretch of the Thames. Many of the gardens in the street where Sally lives contain beautiful magnolia trees, a feature I think also of the time when they were first laid out, when magnolias were very popular. I love to see them in bloom and am always glad when the Book Fair coincides with their flowering, as it did this year.
Even Surbiton has to move a little with the times, however. On my latest visit, I was amused to see a sign directing would-be purchasers to a new housing development; amused, because the developers have called it Red Square. Now that is a brave step! I don’t know how established residents of Surbiton might feel about this designation, but, as someone who has visited its more famous Russian namesake, I have to confess I see few points of similarity.
I’ve not yet decided upon the exact street in which Tim’s sister lives. Originally, I had conceived of a rather genteel existence for her, perhaps working as a lecturer at nearby Kingston University and living in one of the pretty, solid, semi-detached houses within walking distance of the station. But perhaps she is not like this at all. Younger than Tim, perhaps she is an undercover agent working for MI5. She may even be about to move into a safe house in Red Square.