Holding True - A Poem by Sally Spiers


From Battersea to Bermondsey, I once paddled through choppy water,
struggled to hold true, until an ebb tide caught my stern
and swept me along on the murky rush of history.
Under fine bridges where waters rage and surge,
to emerge in sight of cathedrals, grand places and palaces,
monuments to our Rich, to a vainglorious past.
On to where this river churns in the wake of tourist craft,
Visitors dazzled by a splendid imperialist epitaph.

These visitors do not see, as I did, the starveling mudlarks,
ragged, the colour of the foreshore itself.
Scavengers of coal and old rope,
salvaged from this soup of detritus and shit.
They search out of hope, finding disappointment in,
the tooth of a woolly mammoth or a Roman nit comb,
a pilgrim’s pewter medal or a sliver of Tudor glass.
It’s all here, in this rush of Britain’s past.

Nor do they hear the rhythms that held us true.
The songs and shanties of wherrymen, lightermen and sailors?
or the marching songs of the phossy-jawed Match girls
drifting downstream to the Ford machinists at Dagenham,
or the voices of the striking dockers, in need,
of wages enough to feed and clothe their families.
Now but whispers in unfashionable winds that blow
through glassy towers on the banks of this great flow.

The day of my paddle started gloomy grey,
trapping the salty, muddy scent of the river.
A trace memory of the Great Stink that inconvenienced Parliament,
But brought to others long-forgotten, Cholera and Death.
Or a remembrance of the sting of cordite and red brick dust
as bombs rained down destruction on the poor of Bethnal Green, seeking refuge in an underground station,
blowing houses and human parts into this morass of our nation.

Under Westminster Bridge, I am not unmoved by the sight,
so touching in its majesty.*
Honestly, who would not be envious to paddle right
past the Tower of London and under Tower Bridge?
But as I steady my little boat in these turbulent waters,
it is the endless flux of struggle of the people of our nation
that holds me true. Perseverance and determination
Take me on to Bermondsey and to my destination.


*   “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
      A sight so touching in its majesty”

      (Composed Upon Westminster Bridge
      Sept 3rd 1802 - William Wordsworth)