3 September 2016

Bodies of Water II

ratcliffe-cross-stairs.-shadwell.-river-thames-vintage-print-1926-239912-p[ekm]301x400[ekm]Saturday. I was trying to reacquaint myself with Jencks on post-modernism, and more specifically, weaving around the internet trying to find out what I can draw on in the phenomenon of late-20th century warehouse conversion. Then the cannonball of my four-year-old nephew bundles in with library books. This week, they’re on space (they’re often about space) and on the body. How Your Body Works. The title is familiar, and I remember the robot in the picture, and I think, I’ve seen this book before, when I was his age. My heart sinks a little. I have an early memory of being utterly aghast at the pages on how babies are made. Which makes me apprehensive as we skip through taste and digestion, skeletons and muscles. My nephew likes the robots and machines that the book uses as schematics. I find myself having to cross-reference the oddly macabre Human Body in order to disentangle what the red people and the white people in the boats are really doing to the germs. There aren’t really tiny folk in your blood, I explain, and show the many-times-magnified image in the other book. But it’s far less interesting. Joints are good to explain though. His father and I both have long-term sports injuries that my nephew is aware of. “Not your bad hand,” he says, berating me, and he holds my good hand instead. “Not your bad ankle,” he says, when he wants to be bounced up and down on my legs. And when we get to the boys and girls page and the sex robots that make the babies, I manage to convey the information so technically I’m pretty sure I haven’t scarred him for life.

create-spread.aspxBut how hard it is to talk about the structures of the human body. How difficult to explain cells and nerves and brains, muscles and bones; how your body works. I’ve been trying to work on this in my thesis. A chapter that has an earlier incarnation in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World. Bodies at work, is what I wrote about then. How the working human body changes, just as the materials that it works with do. Walking through the dockscape of London, in and out of the Thames path, the evidence of the old wharves is still ever-present. The work of the docks as docks so apparent. The little pulleys and cleats and chains and bollards all indicative of a busy riverside. They’re still embedded in warehouses and wharves, but the warehouses are homes now. Homes to the workers who now populate the open plan offices just around the meander in the river, at Canary Wharf.


It’s a rainy day and the smell of the river is something I adore. Deep, dirty; salty and earthy; fusty and fresh. It smells like it is. At the start of Narrow Street I find a gate open and drop down to the sandy beach at Ratcliffe Cross Stairs. The balconies of the Narrow Street flats are straight over the water. Wood and iron are still pinned into the river wall. The water is whirling in around the battered brickwork, and I’m caught by the river. It’s warm and it whips up to my knees. There’s no swimming tonight, and I’m pleased to get a little soaking. I’ve swum most of the upper Thames – from Cricklade to Teddington – but only dipped in the tidal Thames – swimming off Vauxhall Beach and off the estuarine beaches of course, at Southend, Canvey, Whitstable, but this part of the river is a different kettle of fish. This is the docklands. I’ve seen Frobisher and Cook commemorated in adjacent plots. The Mayflower set off from just over there. This is where trade was – docking trade. And it’s where trade is still. But that happens on different waves. Fingertips on keyboards, fists on ropes. What a long way this river has come. But somewhere in it all, I have to find a way of explaining to my little nephew, that those are the nerve cells (green! Shouts my two-year old niece as she points to the cartoon pictures in How Your Body Works) and the blood cells (red! White!), and they’re what makes it all happen. How we work, and how it works. The messages that we send ourselves.




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