Thames Walk 1: Isle of Dogs to Westminster Bridge
The Time of the Angels takes place in a fog-bound rectory in winter in a bombed-out part of East London apparently in the 1950’s or early 1960’s. Iris Murdoch may have conjured up its haunted otherworldly atmosphere full of menace and “bad angels” all the more easily because this was a part of London she didn’t know well.
Muriel is a typical Murdochian “captive princess”. She comes to the rectory with her atheist priest father and her damaged cousin Elizabeth in the darkness of winter, and her first vision of light and normality takes place when, tentatively out walking, she discovers the life-giving river nearby.
We guess this takes place somewhere on the Isle of Dogs:
“The river’s all around us here. We’re on a sort of peninsula, it loops around.” (p. 67) Here the city has been so changed since post-war days that little trace of this particular “time of angels” remains, but it’s worth a pilgrimage and a good place for our first view of the river, like Muriel’s:
“There was a space of pavement and a lamppost. Then some more steps and suddenly water … fifteen to twenty yards of swift flowing water, a dark luminous amber …” ( p. 68)
From here we can take transport (Jubilee and Bakerloo Line or Bus Route 15) to our next significant Thames site: Blackfriars Bridge.
In Iris Murdoch's novels the Thames is both a life-giving artery pulsing through the city, and a “river of tears bearing away the corpses of men, immense and black beneath the old cracked voices of the temple bells …” (Bruno’s Dream, p. 82)
For Jake Donaghue (Under the Net) it is life-giving, compelling, thrilling. At the western side of Blackfriars Bridge we now look for the wall above some steps from which one moonlit night he slipped hedonistically into its baptismal embrace:
“My blood buzzed behind my skin with a nervous beat. The water took my ankles in a cold clasp. Then the water was about my neck and I shot out into the open river. The sky opened out above me … cascading with stars …” (p. 120)
We can imagine Jake swimming well out and seeing “on one side the dark pools under Blackfriars Bridge, and on the other the pillars of Southwark Bridge glistening under the moon. The whole expanse of water was running with light.” (p. 120-1)
We continue west along the Victoria Embankment. Here Martin Lynch-Gibbon (A Severed Head) walked in the grip of his cataclysmic falling-in-love experience:
“upon the surface of the fast flowing water itself there played a warm light, turning its muddy hue to an old gilt., as if some pure part of the sunlight had escaped to play here under the great vault of the mist. The strange light suited my mood and as I sauntered slowly along beneath the shadowy cliff of New Scotland Yard I began to feel, if not relieved of pain, at least a little more able to collect my wits.” (p. 148)
We read Iris Murdoch for the same reason: to collect our wits - meaning our intellectual, moral, and aesthetic wits. Her novels themselves seem a place where “some pure part of the sunlight” escapes, to light the way in the search for meaning, as well as pleasure and levity.
Now walk under Waterloo Bridge noticing with Martin:
“the long gracious pillared façade of Somerset House. Receding, swaying, variously browned and greyed, it seemed like a piece of stage scenery. Below it upon the river, clear yet infinitely soft and simple as in a Chinese print, two swans sailed against a background of watery grey light …”
In the distance is “the great form of St. Paul’s” and “directly opposite across the river the warehouses, their fronts touched by diffused but increasing intimations of sunlight.” (p. 152)
We have to train ourselves to look simultaneously at the river banks before us – with the London Eye and other new construction – and at the older scene where Iris Murdoch’s stories took place, which makes us reflect on how ever since the Romans first settled here the city has been constantly transformed against earlier versions of itself.
Continuing west we come to Hungerford Railway Bridge.
Here Cato Forbes (Henry and Cato), like Jake Donaghue, also had a night-time rendezvous with the river: walking over the bridge in the April mist he dropped into the invisible water a gun, which he had seized from a delinquent boy whom he was naively trying to help. It “vanished instantly silently … as if it had been gently plucked away”. (p.2)
How easily the mighty river absorbs centuries’ worth of offending human detritus into its cleansing vastness. In Iris Murdoch novels it is no mere transportation artery, it is a glittering, potent, living power, cleansing and authoritative and sometimes deadly.
Martin Lynch-Gibbon’s walk took place on a winter afternoon, the cloud cover relenting at dusk. For Hilary Burde (The Word Child) a foggy winter morning on Westminster Bridge was just as evocative.