A view from the bridge
Yesterday, Sunday, London betrayed all its images in popular image and song. It wasn’t a “foggy day” and no nightingales were singing. The afternoon alternated between bright spells and stormy squalls, which at times were torrential.
The Redfellow contingent had headed for Butler’s Wharf , adjacent to Tower Bridge:
Completed in 1873, Butler’s Wharf was once the largest warehouse complex on the Thames. Having remained derelict after closure in 1972 , this early SE1 development is perhaps best known for Terence Conran‘s restaurants such as Le Pont de la Tour, where the Clintons and Blairs famously dined. The Wharf is also home to gastronomic delights such as the Butler’s Wharf Chop House, Cantina del Ponte, Bengal Clipper, Captain Tony’s Pizza & Pasta Emporium and Pizza Express. Conran’s acclaimed Design Museum also houses the Blue Print Cafe.
You will probably recognise the area’s main thoroughfare, Shad Thames, from countless photographs and films of London’s gloomy docks in years gone by (there are some good photos of the area in the 1970s on this site). The distinctive iron bridges in Shad Thames were once used for moving goods from warehouse to warehouse and have been retained as part of the redevelopment.
The restaurants were doing sparse trade yesterday: the riverside terraces of awnings were dripping and deeply unappealing. So Malcolm & co. sat in the window to eat, drink and watch the passing trade: service was exemplary, if only to stave off the boredom of standing around with empty tables.
And the river is, as ever, full of interest and curiosity. At 1;30, when the party arrived, the tide was still flooding (high tide was soon after 4 pm). A couple of yachts were swanning around in hopeful circles, waiting for the tidal lock of St Katharine’s Dock to open. When it did, it first released a small flotilla of fugitives. Meanwhile, who in any state of right mind takes an inflatable race down river in such conditions? Why did it take the heaviest rain-pulse of the aftern0on to persuade four nutters that the open top-deck of a river boat was not the place to shelter under umbrellas?
By general agreement of the Redfellow mafia, this would be no bad place to live and watch the water-world go by.
In a way, the weather was a metaphor for the political moment.
We are now going into the third week of this hacking scandal — though others, who have been watching from the start, reckon it has been a slow burn over as many years until it finally burst into the open. With the departure of La Brooks and now the embroilment and sudden departure of the Met Police Commissioner, it shows no sign of abatement: indeed, flames are flickering around Downing Street itself. These two personages, separately and together, know where all the bodies are buried, and now may have few compunctions in a bit of disinterment.
Already the pretorians of the Tory press — the Telegraph and the Mail — have taken to questioning whether Cameron is somewhere in the firing line. Clegg, for the junior coalition partners, and Boris Johnson, for the extra-parliamentary intra-party opposition, have both been shifting out of range. This is not a happy administration.
How close the roof is to falling in is the issue of the day. The usual refuge of a Prime Minister under pressure is an overseas trip. Cameron has already been caught out by being off-base in Afghanistan: he is now having to abbreviate his South African jaunt.
In all this there was a pertinent rumination by John Rentoul in yesterday’s Independent on Sunday. He deployed Old Possum’s most famous Practical Cat as a metaphor for George Osborne:
Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw —
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime — Macavity’s not there!
Rentoul is making two essential points:
¶ For the generality when observed in a “focus group”, it’s the economy, stupid. All these shenanigans with News International et al. are a sideshow: “making ends meet” is the real story.
¶ George Osborne, as much as anyone, is culpable for bringing Coulson into the inner circle, for the over-close relationship with Murdoch & co., but:
the Chancellor must be protected from the Murdoch contagion, so that the markets will continue to have confidence in his handling of the economy. This is an unexpected effect of the phone-hacking scandal, binding the coalition even tighter to Osborne’s policy on the deficit – a policy in which even the most unpolitical member of a focus group has a strong and personal interest.
The task of Ed Miliband and the official Opposition is now to link the two stories: the present hoohah and the growing sense of malaise about the economy. We get the first estimate of the UK’s GNP for the second quarter in a few days time. The ConDem coalition, and Osborne in particular, may well be grateful that this will be revealed once parliament is in recess. So, let’s take stock:
- April had bank holidays (Easter, royal weddings …) the way Gruyère cheese has holes. That means the other two months will need to show a 4% improvement in industrial production even to match the dismal performance of the first quarter.
- Construction is, we are told, the bright spot in the prevailing gloom. What isn’t being asked is how much of that is public sector largesse (CrossRail in London; the Olympics site) which is self-evidently time-limited. Unless something very remarkable happens in the private sector, that will start tailing off in the next year.
- There was a perk in the retail figures for April (that royal wedding effect) but this fell back in May. Seasonal sales have been brought forward, all kinds of inducements offered, to the extent that it is hard to see what further measures retailers can invent. All the while, the list of big names in trouble grows longer.
- The services sector, we are told, has improved from its low in May, but the best that can be said of that is: Employment was static, as it has been for the past year, new business growth slowed and confidence slipped to its lowest since October.
George Osborne may not be able to skulk (or be sequestered) this one out as cravenly as over the Coulson business. Back to old Toilets (anagram):
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he’s half asleep, he’s always wide awake.
So, back to lingering over the lunch table at Butler’s Wharf, and wondering:
Has the tide finally on the ebb?
If it has, in political terms, it really is a “sea-change”. Political reputation is a slippery commodity: once mislaid, it is seldom, if ever recovered. Otherwise, it is a slow, drawn-out political death.
As we sit overlooking the Lower Pool, by turning to the east, across the river we see Wapping.
Down beyond the looming mass of News International’s plant, one of the more grisly markers on the river (Malcolm’s Dear Old Dad relished in directing attention to it) is just in sight, as the north bank swings out of view.
There was Execution Dock, omitted by modern maps. Since the Luftwaffe indulged in major town planning of this area, it has been largely forgotten — though the knowing commentators for the tourist river cruises usually include it..
Hither those condemned by the Admiralty Court made their last voyage, to be covered by three tides. Here, on 23rd May 1701, Captain Kidd met his end, thus justifying the nearby eponymous pub — but only at the executioner’s second attempt.