The other week the famous clipper Cutty Shark was destroyed by fire. Police believe the blaze may have been started deliberately. They are pouring over CCTV footage for clues. I live in South London, so I felt I should follow my inclinations, do my psychogeographical duty, and visit the location. On Wednesday 23rd, after work, I walked over to Greenwich. You can’t see much – the ship surrounded by hoardings, the rigging already taken down, the blackened timbers like a collapsed barn. A big white spiky bulbous tent at one corner: some kind of ticket entrance, a cousin to the Dome along the river. The History Channel: Proud to Support the Cutty Sark Conservation Project.
All talk among the tourists and commuters is of the unfortunate or malicious fire. People take photos; some pose in groups beside the wreck. They express sadness, curiosity. “What did they use it for in the past though anyway?” I too had failed to read my history. What was the Cutty Sark’s role in the expansion of the British Empire? It was a tea-clipper. It carried tea from China to London, beating rivals by virtue of its great speed. I consulted Eric Hobsbawm. The Chinese market, he told me, had been a hard one to crack: “the conservative and self-satisfied Chinese still refused to buy what the West, or western-controlled economies offered, until between 1815 and 1842 western traders, aided by western gun-boats, discovered an ideal commodity which could be exported en masse from India to the East: opium.” The Cutty Sark’s exploits fuelled by drug-pushing.
No longer. Opium is not now part of the Cutty Sark’s power. A string of ornate catchwords spell out the conservation project’s vision for the ship: Fame, Speed, Beauty, Embark, Inspire, Renew, Awe. The Cutty Sark is a tourist attraction. No longer transporting commodities, it is a symbol of past glory; and this symbol is a commodity. London converts the physical into the ideal. On the other side of the river, the towers of Canary Wharf blink impassively. These monuments to international finance, built on the former docklands. It’s all too perfect.
I walk down the Greenwich foot tunnel, into the echo chamber beneath the Thames. A handful of people: an army shuffling. As night falls I look back across the river. The sky is purple. A football floats past. A ridiculous paddle-boat, the ‘Elizabethan’, does a U-turn. It leaves a curving wake, slick on the ruffled surface. The smooth curve is borne downriver by the flow. At night a laser leaves Greenwich Observatory, tracing the Meridian. It passes over water. You can stand beneath it on the edge of the Greenwich peninsular, beside the slag heaps and the digging equipment, and watch the foam caught in the tug of the Thames.
I’m no Iain Sinclair, no Stewart Home – but I’ve done my fair share of walking in London, trying to think things through. Now I walk north, up into the Isle of Dogs, beneath the DLR. The towers and building sites of Canary Wharf. The marbled burrows beneath 1 Canada Square. Concrete pillars. Flood lighting. Steps leading down into cold water. Reflected office blocks in office block windows. These are the sacred places. Stone circles channelling money’s power. Vast grey obelisks, gaudily sombre. As I walk among them they seem to slide past each other, in a carefully choreographed dance routine. Perhaps one day they too will be destroyed by fire.