Let me speak to you about rivers*.
The sea is the protagonist of plays, symphonies and operas. The sea is a power than can break man, and man has wrestled with the sea, trying to tame it, since the dawn of times. The sea is a force to be reckoned with. It is a world in its own right. I have always held the sea in deep respect – but I have never felt any love for it. I find its roar too imposing, the smell of salt too intrusive, its sheer size disconcerting. I do not trust the sea; it has a violent streak. But rivers – ah, rivers – are gentle, and soothing, and inspiring. They caress my soul when it is weary, wash away dark thoughts when I am sad, bring fresh ideas to feed my imagination, and lull me with stories whenever I ask. They hear my innermost secrets.
Rivers come together to make the sea.
Rivers make loyal friends and confidantes.
There is the Tiber, that rushes through Rome with the confidence of one who feels equal to the splendid buildings it passes on its way. It reflects the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo, with stories of crimes, of torture, secrets and plots. It plays arias from the second act of Tosca. It brings love songs in Roman dialect, ritornelli, wisecracks from Trastevere and the common sense of Trilussa’s poems. Like Rome, the Tiber is loud. Like a beautiful woman with a rugged-accented, husky voice unafraid to flaunt – rather blatantly – her sex appeal.
There is the Wear, that hugs the Peninsula of central Durham. Local people tell of that morning when German bombers were heard in the Northumbrian sky, and a blanket of thick fog rose from the river, and wrapped itself around the Cathedral and Castle, making the Peninsula invisible. So the bombs did not touch the heart of the city. They call it St Cuthbert’s Miracle. When I was at university, at Durham, I spent many an afternoon sitting on the steps of the College boathouse, writing in my notebook, the water gurgling to and fro at my feet, teasing, and listened to stories of illuminated manuscripts and theological discussions. Or I stood on Prebends Bridge, admiring the reflection, in the river waters, of the Norman Cathedral towers, “half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scots. At the end of the academic year, we would all gather on Prebends Bridge to listen to madrigals, sung from boats, my favourite being Delius’s To Be Sung on a Summer Night by the Water I. Ethereal voices carried up by the breeze.
There is the Cam, that snakes between the Colleges of Cambridge, its surface caressed by weeping willows. For a brief time – in a fruitless attempt to acquire teamwork skills – I joined the College boat club, and coxed a crew of eight, before dawn. Ducks would voice loud protests at the intrusion, and swans were known to bite the oars, as I learned to pull the rudder string in time before the boat bumped into the bank. The Cam is a gentle river, full of East Anglian magic that seems to giggle at Academia. It is a river for punting, whilst trailing a bottle of champagne on a string, chilling it in the cool water. In the city, it carries you under the romantic Bridge of Sighs (which I find more beautiful than its Venetian namesake), Clare College Bridge, with its stone globe missing a section, and Newton’s Mathematical Bridge, reputed to have been held together without a single nail or bolt. There are other, more understated bridges, with stories to tell about Varsity folk. When it leaves Cambridge, the Cam takes you into the Fens, past Grantchester, and as it flows across the flat landscape, you can hear Delius and Vaughan Williams.
Now that I live in London, I have made friends with the Thames. Like this wonderful city, the Thames has many tricks up its sleeve. At the foot of Westminster, it is majestic, mirroring the amber lights of the Houses of Parliament and the platinum glow of Big Ben. As it struts beside the South Bank, it becomes trendy and theatrical, tossing at you the odd snippet of orchestral music, mixed with whatever tune the resident buskers are improvising. When it reaches the Globe Theatre, it mutters Shakespearean insults at the tourists. Arriving at St Paul’s, it is all pomp, circumstance and Purcell brass. Personally, I am especially fond of the Thames when it reaches the shade of Putney Bridge. It is where I go and converse with philosophical crows. It is where I listen to the whispers of plane trees with branches swaying over the waters, and white trunks so wide, two people could hold hands around them. Ducks congregate on the bank, and couples of swans glide past. When the tide is low, herons stand, motionless, staring into the shallow waters, waiting, or stride with Royal Ballet poise.
And, all the time, the river is ready to lend an ear, and be your loyal confidante.
* With thanks to H.