Telling tales of the riverboat men

Peter Dormer takes a trip with the jack-the-lads who steer tourists down the Thames and give a populist low-down of the buildings en route: Wren? Marvellous. Modern? Hideous!
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How much is the view that foreigners have of London's architecture coloured by the opinion of jack-the-lads who work tourist boats on the Thames? They may not be the most accurate, but the river men are certainly the most vocal of architectural propagandists. These stand-up comedians chat over the tannoys as skilfully as if they were doing a turn at the London Palladium, and each must bend many thousands of receptive ears each year.

Embarking from Charing Cross to Greenwich in a boat that looks as if it has been cobbled together from survivors of the Dunkirk armada and a second-hand double-decker bus, our motley crew settles down for lessons on London's buildings and culture. Waterloo Bridge, I'm sure you knew, was built during the Second World War with a labour force that was 80 per cent female, seeing as the men were fighting for King and country.

"And on your right-hand side," runs the commentary over the accompanying thunder of diesel engines, "that's the new Kent House, home of London Weekend Television, famous for its corny quiz shows. You get more repeats out of there than in a tin of baked beans. The large concrete building, still to our right-hand side, with the illuminated lights, that's the National Gallery, described by London's leading architects as the ugliest building in Britain."

The lads that do these commentaries have no love for modern arhitecture. They are, more or less to a man, devotees of the school of the Prince of Wales, whom they quote approvingly from time to time.

"To our left, the large white building. Now, that's called Mondial House. Prince Charles doesn't like it very much; it looks to him like a giant word processor. He's got a point. In fact, it's British Telecom's International telephone complex. They speak over 37 langauages in that building; at the moment, they're trying to master English."

The Japanese look baffled. Quite rightly. Yet, what they are listening to is living English heritage. It is as if Shakespeare's Pistol or Bardolph have survived the centuries and been washed up as London's unofficial architectectural interpreters. Each one of them is quick to point out, "I'm not a professional guide, I'm only a member of the crew." This does not, however, stop them from cruising the airwaves over the tannoy, or asking for "appreciation" to be shown when the boat berths.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, wants to revive the Thames and put the river back at the heart of the capital. But the reality is that for hundreds of thousands of visitors to London, the Thames is the heart of the city. What they listen to on board the pleasure boats, however, is not the official government or middle-class, professional view of the Thames and the city it sulks through largely ignored, but a disaffected and often witty working-class view of London. The commentary varies little from boat to boat because the script is written collectively in the pub where boatmen meet.

"The last building, the semi-circular one just before the bridge, that's the headquarters of the detergent manufacturers, Lever Brothers. They make seven detergents and each one washes whiter than the others."

For some reason this joke makes us laugh; perhaps that's because it punctures the city's commercial hegemony at one quip. But, in truth, these commentaries are as shabby as London itself (at its worst). It bristles with class resentment, working-class defiance and philistinism made palatable by humour. As the boat slips down the river, past post-modern apartments and neo-Georgian houses with council-owned tower blocks behind, the chirpy cockney chatter flows with the water, the voice a product of public squalor commenting on private affluence.

"That's the home of Michael Crawford - some mothers do 'ave 'em. There's a lot of luxury apartments here the working classes can't afford." Of course, he's right. When council homes were being built high in the East End sky, the riverside was a maze of working docks and wharves. By the time they became available for housing, the Government had put a stop to council house building, so the working class never did get river-view architecture.

The boat itself is a parody of the luxury homes the working class still aspires to. So we roll on chairs that are a dainty mixture of what you see, gold-painted, at mayoral tea parties and the tubular-framed kind you find in school halls. There's Axminster carpet on the walls of the saloon as well as on the deck, and electric candlestick lamps between the windows. Such sights on a boat cruising the Seine or Rhine are unthinkable.

The commentary continues. "If you look to the left, you get an excellent view of Cannon Street station. The two brick towers you see are all that's left of the original building. It used to have a beautiful glass roof. During the war, the government, in its infinite wisdom, took it down to store safely in Kent. It was destroyed in the first air raid over South- east England - the warehouse received a direct hit. As you can see, the new part of the station fits in so well with the old [sarcasm, of course] and that's modern architecture for you."

Sir Christopher Wren comes out well, as one might expect. In fact, he is the only architect to be named. As for the others, I expect hanging is too good for them. It's hanging, and other forms of violence, that really excites the vocal boatmen. "Just here is where William Cuckold dipped his wife in the Thames three times because he found her misbehaving." That's just the mild stuff.

On with the architecture. "This is Canary Wharf, which is quite a huge failure; only 17 per cent of the buildings are let."

Which leads us to the landing stage at Greenwich, where the hideous pier acts as a demeaning foil to the architectural magnificence of Jones, Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh, all of whom built here at the height of their powers.

These pleasure boat commentaries do little to enhance our art-historical knowledge of architecture, yet they do tell us much about the way the Thames is viewed by those who live without a view of the Thames. London remains, as does its modern architecture, a city not so much of contrasts as of class and class divisions. Perhaps when the Thames and Thames-side architecture is steered into a state of sweetness - and beauty for all - the boatmen will change their song.