A flood of inspiration: Will Self’s Thames trudges

Will Self is so obsessed with the Thames he occasionally takes walks through it – thigh-deep in its ‘mocha waters’. As a new exhibition of paintings about the river opens, he celebrates his murky muse

A few years ago, I decided to walk on the foreshore of the Thames from Battersea Park as far to the east as I could. I had observed over the years that, at especially low tides, quite large areas of hardened mud were exposed; these were either studded with pebbles and flints, or gave way to chunks of concrete slipway, or elided into true shingle. Naturally, being the sort of man I am, I hadn’t made a comprehensive survey of either the littoral or the tide table, so I soon found myself wading thigh-high in the obscuring mocha of the waters, and feeling the thick silt ooze between my sandals and my soles. Impulsiveness has at least this virtue: it impels you.

I’ve lived in Stockwell, about half a mile south of the Thames, for the past 17 years. At best, it has provided me with amazement: like the time when I was cycling over Vauxhall Bridge, saw a small crowd gathered by the parapet, and dismounted to see a poor whale who, scrambled up by sonar, had made his way upriver to die. And at worst, it allows me some sense of the physical landscape that underlies London’s portentous human geography: its hulking blocks and loitering street furniture set along elongated and repetitive arterial roads. To feel the city’s location as topographically (rather than financially) determined, it’s necessary to either gain sufficient height to see the lazy S-bends uncoiling along the floor of the valley, or go down to that river itself.

On pewter-grey and claustrophobic days, I’ll walk for 10 minutes to the riverbank and, despite the oppressive sense of the city as a coagulation of human futility, my blues will be diluted by the Thames itself – because it doesn’t care. Its great glaucous surge will continue, regardless, as its embanked pharynx sucks in the sea and spurts it out again. On the evening I walked along the foreshore from Battersea Park, I ended up wading at least half the distance to the strange rusty old freighter that’s been tied up permanently beside Albert Embankment. It’s been converted into a bar bistro called, suitably enough, Tamesis. When I wasn’t wading, I was marvelling at the strata the low tide had exposed: the old and oily piles, the weedy sections of wall, the slipways to and from nowhere. In the lee of the ghastly St George’s Wharf development, there’s an info-board that tells the idle stroller she is within a few yards of the oldest Thames crossings – a neolithic bridge, or pontoon, that stretched out across the waters when they were still ungirded.

But really, you’ve only to take the ramp beside the MI6 building in order to acquire a direct apprehension of the river as an artery wending through the ages. When I reached Tamesis, I was waist-deep in this lifeblood, and although it was perfectly clear to me that were I to push on towards the irrelevance of Westminster – a reef sustaining but a meagre and worsted biodiversity – I would soon be sucked under, to be found days or months later at Gravesend, with eels exiting from my eyes. Yet I longed to go on, for the Thames remains the source of the epiphany I had 30 years ago, one that sent me spiralling into a new relationship with my natal city.

Standing on a sunlit Mayfair street, aged 25 with time to kill and no money to spend, it flowed into me – from the oceanic and collective consciousness perhaps – that although I’d been born within 100 yards of its banks, I had never seen the mouth of the Thames, nor, for that matter, had I much conception of what it might be like. It struck me almost simultaneously that, were you to encounter some benighted peon 30-odd miles from the mouth of the Amazon and ask him what it was like where the great river meets the sea, and he were to say that he had absolutely no idea, you’d think him a very benighted peon indeed. Driving east through Erith and Dartmouth, and then on to Gravesend, I was that peon. But I was about to be freed – and it was the Thames that freed me, as it spread out between the Grain and Canvey, a great electrolyte bath in which, over the next quarter-century, my imagination would be silvered.

In the intervening time, since I stood at the mouth of the Thames and watched the container ships struggle out to sea like multi-storey blocks in full flood from Thatcher’s privatisation, I’ve been up and down the length of the river a fair amount. I’ve rowed on it and swam in it, but mostly I’ve walked beside it – sometimes fanatically – in search of that rare combination of the transcendent and the haptic that only the work of a serious artist can achieve. Looking at Kurt Jackson’s canvases, which manage this feat so triumphantly for the Thames, it occurs to me that I might as well have stayed at home, waiting for them to come into being.

• This is an edited extract from Will Self’s catalogue essay on Kurt Jackson.

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