Some editions of Aesop’s Fables include a story called ‘The Camel Who Shat in the River’. It’s almost certainly nothing to do with the original Aesop: even if he had somehow heard of camels, he would never have been so coarse. Perhaps it’s just because I’m an irredeemable vulgarian myself, but I don’t quite see what the problem is. The camel does what he has to do, then utters something profound in a fable told with great economy:
A camel was crossing a swiftly flowing river and saw his dung floating in front of him, carried by the rapidity of the current.
‘What is that in there?’ he asked himself. ‘That which was behind me I now see pass in front of me.’
My Penguin Classics copy says that the moral of this story is: with idiots in charge, we’re all in the muck. But I see our camel as a kind of quadrapedal Taoist, diviner of the watercourse way.
Father Thames is there from the beginning, like part of the family, when you grow up in the middle of London. But the city’s many other, smaller waterways are more likely to delight you out of nowhere, to steal up on your sense of things, like love at first sight. It’s quite something to be walking through a cemetery on a rainy day and realise you’re by the River Moselle; from muddy Tottenham to the banks of a beautifully-named legend.
The cause of progress did, at one point, relegate many of London’s rivers to the status of fables: their days as London’s open sewers were mercifully ended by Brunel’s grand underground cylinders, and the dangerous waters were largely concreted over. Most of them still are, but a renewed interest and the odd Lottery grant have seen stretches of rivers and streams in unlikely bits of London spruced up and made more welcoming. Like a dumb camel, I’d walked along the New River a couple of times before I realised I had been watching the same water all along, first later, then earlier on its journey: in Finsbury Park, where it branched off from the Stamford Hill Reservoir; and upstream by the lock in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.
I only realised it was all the New River when a friend took me to a third stretch, one that discreetly wends its way along two narrow, recently landscaped stretches of green space in Canonbury, Islington. Even then, it took both a council plaque and a verbal notification. Not far from the end of this ‘New River Walk’, there is a particularly lovely willow tree perched by the thin stream of water, its branches forming a low-hanging, parasol-like shelter over a grassy promontory. We ducked under and inside it, and sat down. I couldn’t remember when I’d felt so at home and serene in a place, so close to and yet utterly detached from everything else.
For a second, it didn’t seem silly to think about moving there.
It was late though, after 11, and a park warden told us he was locking up and asked us to move on. He was very nice about it, but it was hard not to resent the intrusion. The long waterside vigil of Echo and Narcissus may have been doomed, but at least they didn’t have the indignity of a mild-mannered janitor crashing it.
Still, I do get to go back. It’s just a little strip of water and plants, plus some nice dog-walkers and amiable daytime drunks, but it’s such an enchanting place to be able to escape to from Essex Road. Moorhens, mallards and coots before your eyes, folk memories of Swallows and Amazons in your mind.
And the willow. Willows are Eeyore’s ears, Regent’s Park’s pedalos, Purcell in the open air, tumbling Cotswolds beer gardens. They have always made me sad, too, more melancholy than sakura season, the slow creep of autumn gloom, or the bald branches of winter. Willows mourn all year round. Funny that they feel quite so English, though, given that they were introduced here in the 18th century, and took off in the era of obsessively ordered classical gardens.
I just find myself going back there. Sometimes, strangely, there are places I like to go and be alone, because even if I don’t expect to find someone else I know there, I still hold out hope that their ghost might brush by.
Words Peter Lyle
Ilustration Stewart Walton