Out on the south shore of the River Thames, east of London Bridge, beyond the Barrier, farther even than the garbage islands of Rainham Marshes, lies Northfleet Works. Opposite is the Port of Tilbury where, in June 1948, the SS Empire Windrush berthed to allow almost 500 Jamaicans, part of the first wave of post-war migrants from the Commonwealth, to head towards central London. The Works itself has no such claim to distinction. Scheduled to close soon by its owner, the cement manufacturer Lafarge, it already appears to be sinking into the bogs and dour wetlands on which it sits and which will soon be developed as part of the multi-billion pound Thames Gateway regeneration scheme.
The site, known to those who still work here as The Dusthole, is semi-derelict. The timber has rotted, the machinery is rusty and creaking with old age, the elevated rigging sheds are broken. Weeds threaten to overrun the quay. The air is thick with the waft of hot dust. From here, almost every evening, in summer and in winter, a 240-ton Dutch motor barge sets off to carry cement up the river to plants in Battersea, Vauxhall and Fulham. Twenty years ago, there were a hundred motor barges going up and down the Thames; now there are eight.
The skipper of one of these barges, Gabriele, is a beaming 62-year-old man called Alan Jenner. He has been working the river for half a century. Towelling off the dust and sweat from his muscly, ginger-haired arms, he recalls that when he was a kid there were so many boats on the Thames that it was possible to skip from boat to boat all the way from one side of the river to the other without getting wet. His first job, as a twelve year old, was to row "ladies of pleasure" to the sex-starved sailors aboard steamers in the port of Rochester. They would throw him ten-bob notes and half crowns in gratitude.
"I'd like to be buried in the Thames. Some of my friends have done that. With one particular friend, we threw his ashes over the side of the boat but they came back straight away. The wind blew him back. We'd thrown him the wrong side. Someone said: 'He's coming back for a bit of overtime.'"
The men who work on the river are a dying tribe. They inherited their jobs from their fathers and grandfathers. The docks, for all that they seemed exotic and polyglot to landlubbers, was home to clannish and tight communities that in recent decades have been unmoored as the capital, or at least those in charge of it, decided to abandon its industrial heritage and transform itself into a tourist citadel and global financial hub. The river has become the preserve of pleasure-seekers in buzz boats, cocky young gastro-revellers going wild on corporate credit cards, ruthlessly orchestrated photo-opportunity shoots for imported Ukrainian soccer players, enthusiastic out-of-towners rushing to the prow of HMS Belfast to mimic Leonardo DiCaprio's 'I'm the king of the world' speech from Titanic.
Those that are left from an earlier time see themselves as survivors. Wilting survivors. They move through a river that appears to them to have been razed and colonised by outside forces, its soul abducted. They look around, gazing, mystified and sometimes trembling with bitterness, at a ghost architecture of decommissioned power stations, wharves that have been torn down in order to make way for storage spaces, warehouses that have been converted into apartments for bankers and designers. The tankers and cruise ships that they pass sport the insignia of foreign companies. There is only phantom industry now - the cast-iron buttresses of Beckton Gas Works that are too costly to be dismantled, a few faded inscriptions on the sides of flour mills that have been kept to add value and the patina of history. The shore, which used to have public landing piers for anyone to dock and disembark, has been sold off to private companies.
The bargers laugh that the new riverside dwellers, when they're actually resident in their luxury pads, and not swanning around on foreign beaches or ski resorts, are always agitated. Many of them, regarding the Thames as mere wallpaper, a toney backdrop to their manicured lives, had bought their flats unseen and are now always on the phone to their agents complaining about the noise of boats going past or because they can spot power stations from their balconies.
In the eyes of the bargers, it is the flats that are the most visually disruptive. They describe them as "luxury prisons", domino-sized cells within bulbous high-rises or brutally angular developments that are garished up with strips of blue and pink neon, bolts of Vegas-chintz lightning. The pavilions, faux-pagodas and Riviera-style hotels that huddle together near Chelsea they describe as "high-class knocking shops." What, they wonder, does London have to offer to nurses, policemen and dockers: "How good can free enterprise be if it's causing poverty for so many people?"
"Me and my missus had to divorce on the grounds of political economy. My wife had osteoarthritis of the spine, and then a lesser version of ME. Even though she couldn't work, St Thomas's wouldn't put her on their priority list for treatment. So we had to get divorced. I mean - she kept falling over and was always full of bruises. I have to say, if my barge had as many defects as she had, I'd scrap it."
There is a Dutch sign that hangs in the wheelhouse: "Al is er storm/ Of tegenspoed/ Een borrel smaakt/ Altijd goed". It translates as: "Even though there are storms/ Or bad times/ Ale/ Always tastes good". But neither Jenner, nor his younger relief-captain Dave, nor his teenage deckhand Luke, drink on board. They prefer more homely fare - crisps and chocolates and PG Tips - carrier bags of which Dave, who has just returned from a nearby Sainsbury's, winches down on a pulley from the wharf to the boat. Before they can start tucking in, they have to ensure that the pipes of cement are properly positioned in the cylindrical tanks. This can take a couple of hours: the barge's load of 240 tonnes is a dozen times greater than that of the lorries that transport the material by day.
By 9 o'clock Gabriele is ready to leave. Dave has gone below deck for a quick snooze; bargers run a tight operation, and have to subsist on three hours of sleep a night, snatched pockets of shut-eye. The sky is inkwell-black and the seagulls are mute. There's no slish of traffic from nearby roads. No patrol boats ping by. Jenner rubs his hands with glee: he dislikes the tourist boats that clog the river by day and zip around at dangerous speeds. Even though a night like this is restrictive, its lack of light making navigation harder and the use of radios, depth gauges and radar systems crucial, he prefers its quiet company to that of daytime.
Jenner trusts his eyes more than he does any technical equipment. For over forty years he has been building up a Thames archive, snapping and shooting the creatures, boats, buildings and foliage that he spots as he chugs up- and downstream. He believes there is an art of looking at the river, one that can only be developed slowly over time, and that is impossible for those youngsters who dwell on the job's derisory pay to fully appreciate. The way he sees it, each evening is a completely different journey: breezes will make waves behave differently, strange aromas will drift across the river; the play of shadow and light will throw up bizarre shapes. "They're like a half pack of dinosaurs rolling around in a heap of sand," he says as he peers out at a huddle of cranes on the opposite bank. When he was younger he had a girlfriend to whom he confided his passion for taking photographs of dockside machinery: "She said to me, 'Are you some kind of nutter?' Well, there was no point in having a relationship with her."
"If the souls of dead people came out of the Thames now they'd dive back down again because they wouldn't understand what they were seeing. They'd say: 'Where's our mud hut?'"
Bargers are weathered Londoners. They don't have double glazing or air conditioning systems to insulate them from inclement conditions. Fog, although it doesn't last for three days as it used to back in the peasouper era, can hang around for eighteen hours and prevent them from setting off. Mostly it arrives without warning, a grey blanket flung over their faces that forces them to stop once they're already on the river. Storms, however fierce, are easier to deal with. As the bargers turn and twist through bends in the river, its increasingly surly waters dark and colourless, they can see vicious squalls raging miles ahead of them, or heavy snow lighting up the radar screen. Then, one more bend, and suddenly they find themselves in the middle of a gale. A big one can kill winds, and leave the river quiet for up to a day.
Oversized mosquitos fill the air in the earlier part of the evenings. That's what the bargers call the private helicopters roaring above their boats on their way to the rooftop helipads that are increasingly visible from the river. They also see and feel jet engines flying through the clouds, causing, they are convinced, huge and potentially disastrous pressure changes to the atmosphere. Jenner, who goes to air shows in his spare time, swears that he can tell which plane is flying above his barge just by the way that the tea shakes on his table.
In the summertime, real mosquitos settle on and munch their flesh. Midges swarm and bite. But most of the animals they see - and even those that they don't: jokey speculations and reveries about the whale that got stuck in the Thames in January 2006 kept them warm throughout much of the following winter - they find delightful. Seals. Dolphins. Rats they claim are the size of Jack Russells. Porpoises at Fulham that swim right alongside the barges, seemingly in thrall to the squeak of the cutlass bearing in the revolving propeller shaft that may or may not sound to them like mating calls, and keep disappearing under water before re-emerging all the way downriver at Blackwall Tunnel.
"Nobody knows we're here. Nobody. The Port of London sent a river pilot to assess my competence. I've been on the Thames for fifty years. I was the one who trained that pilot."
Working nights is tough for those bargers with girlfriends or wives ("Have you emptied your balls this weekend?" Jenner likes to ask his deckhand on Mondays, knowing that he is unlikely to get any more action until the next weekend). But at least they don't have to hang around at wharves waiting for lorries to be loaded up with cement. The river, except on the choppiest evenings, is peaceful. The bargers, especially after midnight, feel as though they have been unshackled from the city, its soot and heaviness, its noise and overbearing solidity. They breathe in the fumes of freedom, bathe in the tranquillity of the dark waters through which they gently move.
And yet, perhaps because this atmosphere is so appealing to them, they cultivate a bleak and often racially inflected repertoire of stories about what crimes and knavery befall those who have the misfortune to live on solid ground. Rotherhithe: "You expect trouble down there. It's like watching Big Brother on television: a mad, messed up reality show going on before your very eyes." Southwark: "There's an estate there. The kids throw all sorts at us - plastic bottles, biscuit tins, bricks, pennies." Wandsworth: "They're cannibals there. You hear these screams and groans. Blood-curdling noises. Do I dare risk wandering around Wandsworth at 5.50? If I did I'd be reading my obituary in the paper in the morning." Brixton: "As far as I'm concerned, they can just put a bubble over it and fill it with gas."
These are not just tall tales. Some of the bridges along the Thames may be cammed up, but that doesn't deter teenagers - and also their pissed fathers - from spitting at WI members enjoying the riverscape. It doesn't stop armed robbers breaking into bankside alehouses. Jenner's barge leaves from below Gravesend, the mournful starting point of Conrad's Heart of Darkness; sailing upriver, the shoreline dimmed and obnubilated, it's easy to conceive of London as a barbarous jungle-continent full of mindless hordes drinking and chanting and dancing to electronic-tom-toms, and flanked by foliage-camouflaged garrison towns to repel naval invaders.
"A woman went to get a taxi with her son at the Isle of Dogs. At the street corner it was all whores hanging around waiting for trade. 'Mum, mum: what are all those women doing?' Mum was embarrassed, but quick-thinking: 'I expect it's the sailor's wives waiting for their husbands to come back from their ships.' The taxi driver leaned back: 'Don't give him any of that shit, love. They're whores, that's what they are. Whores.' The boy says, 'Mum, do whores have babies like normal women do?' 'Of course they do, Tommy. Where do you think taxi drivers come from?'
Londoners take the Thames for granted. They may cross its bridges, but they rarely sail across it. To them, just as to the location scouts who make sure that every Hollywood movie set in the capital has at least one shot in which A-list star-crossed lovers wander its banks with a view of St Paul's Cathedral behind them, it's seen as a place of lazy fun. The bargers, though they love the river dearly, are closer in opinion to HV Morton who believed that the Thames at night was the most mysterious thing in the whole of the capital: So much part of London, yet so remote from London, so cold, so indifferent..."
For the bargers know that they if they listen carefully they will hear the cries of thousands of stricken Londoners sinking into the turbulent waters: Elizabethan lightermen whose boats fell apart, eighteenth-century African slaves jumping overboard to avoid being deported back to plantation servitude, the six hundred passengers who drowned in 1878 when the paddle steamer Princess Alice collided with another ship at Galleons Reach, the victims of the Marchioness disaster in 1989.
The river is a place of death and disappearance. Bargers have been known to curse eco-vandals who fling bags of rubbish into the water, only to realise that those bags were human bodies. They have seen drunken revellers shout 'Wa-hey!' and leap in to low water with the result that their feet got trapped in the mud and they drowned still standing. They tell of down and outs, misery-sodden tramps and OD-ing kids jumping into the river, unspotted by bystanders, so that their weed-entangled bodies were only found many days later.
Rumour spreads fast by water. The talk of the river is not the discovery of drug cargos or of the headless torsos of sacrificed African boys. These days, it is the importation of illegal immigrants that keeps the bargers gossiping. The modern descendants of the welt-backed slaves brought to London after the sixteenth century are Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners who are squeezed by traffickers into near-airless tin-box containers welded to the bottom of foreign ships. The containers, and the corpses inside, are only discovered when the ships harbour at dry dock. "Poor bastards," sigh the bargers.
"It's part of me. It's running through my veins. I dream, live and work for the Thames.
I hope it is a life sentence, I really do."
The night floats by. Its soundtrack is the gentle chop and chunder of water, the metallic gurgle of the barge's motor, and periodic radio bulletins to the officials at the Vessel Trafficking System based in Woolwich. It wasn't that long ago that skippers had to make do without radio, or radar, or power steering; they just shouted across to the other boats. But then, it wasn't that long ago that the nocturnal river was swathed in blackness; now, even at its farthest reaches, carparks and grand shopping complexes are sprouting up, their light leaking out onto the Thames and denting its darkness.
As we move towards Greenwich, and then to St Paul's, new apartments dazzle with gay-liberation and graffiti-bright colours. The city's skyline has changed, the church spires and cathedral domes that gave it spiritual elevation supplanted by blobs and beehives and trout-pouted constructions seemingly imported from Legoland. The bridges gleam like candelabras. The Dome, built on poisonous junkspace from many strata of acid, coal and asbestos, still looks paralysed and absurd, an upturned crab unable to move. Canary Wharf, stiff and bemoneyed, its uptight verticality in contrast to the river's shifting, curvy horizontality, blazes out light: a bonfire of London's soul.
On we go, past the old holding cells near Whitechapel where convicts waited for the ships that would deport them to Australia; past the Marine Support Unit patrol boats whizzing by to find some unfortunate who has stumbled into the water; past the Embankment along which cheering partygoers have created a huge Conga line; all the way to Fulham where, after the boat's contents have been transferred to a cement plant, there is just time for a quick kip before the barger sets off upstream back to Northfleet.
We are tired and quiet, but as dawn slowly leaks into view, it is impossible not to be beguiled by the river. There are no traffic jams, no road works closing off access: just a long, sun-glazed vista that stretches for miles. The distance between us and the concrete city is greater than if we were travelling on a motorway. Just for an instant, but an acute and painful one, the buildings on shore look like holding pens, shackling devices to destrict the aspirations of their inhabitants who are mere lab rats running round in ever decreasing circles. The water is so calm that it seems as if it is the city that is floating and that we are the solid ones, the custodians of the capital's history, confidants to its majestic melancholy.
Here, on the Thames, for all the sweat and hardship, for all the worries that they are becoming posthumous in their own lifetime, the bargers can exist beyond the stiff rhythms and stressful schedules that govern the lives of most workers in London. Here they operate according to tidal time rather than to clock time. It feels intoxicating to them. They laugh a lot as the morning creeps forward: at the erratic movements of a party-goer returning home late; at the wobbling midriff of a City jogger crossing one of the bridges; at the crowds of suits milling towards town. "I see them and think: if one falls, they'll all fall. They're like little robots. You have to laugh." But I don't laugh. In fact, I feel like crying. Whether it's because of the river's brittle, pale beauty at this time of morning, or because those robots remind me of myself, I can't quite decide.