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Lay for the Day
30th June

1894: the opening of Tower Bridge in London.

Walking from Wapping

Home, after press night,
the Culture section put to bed
(Irish edition) and the small
small-hours rain often floating
up into the floodlights
falling over Tower Bridge.

2am-ish, next day’s Times
and Sun already read,
the hour the news is born…
Or on a still, dry night
in the black water of St Katherine’s Dock
fish mouths seeding circular ripples.

From the fo’c’sle of a Baltic trader
a lamp left shining
and in the saloon of some outlandish white
millionaire’s yacht, a green-tinted light
but no-one stirring.
The zeroes of unconscious wealth.

Up the steps, past Dead Man’s Hole,
where a sign tells us the Thames’s corpses surface,
and into the harsh illumination,
loomed over by the blank operatic towers,
blue and white links of the suspension.
The muddy flood curdes round the piers.

Occasional quarrels of gulls echo
from midstream, where they roost on the moored waste barges.
Unfazed by the lone pedestrian
a young fox digs in the Potter’s Field,
runs up the riverbank walk,
disappears between two office blocks.

And one night crashed from among the shrubs in planters
a snipe or woodcock, lost and roosting
by the atrium of some corporate necropolis,
and made my blood jump down in that citadel
of prestige at the foot of London Bridge.
But of course it was life more abundant in fact.

The twisted narrow alley round the back
end of the cathedral, I never took:
Green Dragon Court, unlit, on a drizzling night –
no thank you. I stood staring down the grating
out in the square where what I realised
was a rat only after it had gone had gone.

Someone stacking boxes of oranges
loudly joins in the chorus of a disco track.
The lanes through Borough Market lined
with levees of Savoy cabbages, cauliflowers,
sandbag forts of potato sacks,
buzzing of forklifts, artics backing and being unloaded.

This was back in the days
when Borough High Street was no-one’s idea of fun –
just the odd gaggle of clubbers
coming down from the Ministry
to get a cab at the junction that’s been a junction
for a couple of thousand years.

Cross the crossroads
and the bad news falls behind me.
The eyelids of the day
jittering with their dreams,
dew slides across the whites
and pupils, in expectation of the light.


John Gibbens
from Sand of the Thames
This poem was first published as a broadsheet by Kater Murr’s Press in 2004


The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar