One very important thing that London and New Orleans have in common is that they both have a great river at their heart. And recently these rivers have been flowing into my thoughts.
I’m currently reading a book by Ben Aaronovitch called Rivers Of London (known as Midnight Riot in the US), the first in a series of “fantasy police procedurals” in which, as you’d expect from the title, the Thames and London’s other rivers (yes, there are several more) play leading roles. And I don’t mean that metaphorically – they are actual characters in the book.
In one scene, protagonist Peter Grant meets “Mother Thames”, who tells him that, “all the musicians in London belong to me, especially the jazz and bluesmen. It’s a river thing.” He follows this with what, to my mind, is the inevitable question: “Are you on speaking terms with the Mississippi, then?”. Grant continues: “It suddenly occurred to me that if there was a Mother Thames, why not a god of the Old Man River, and if that was so, did they talk? Did they have long conversations about silting, watersheds and the need for flood management in the tidal regions?”
The Mississippi also plays a significant role in another book I’ve been reading, this time set in New Orleans. Jed Horne’s Desire Street is about the sentencing to death and acquittal of city resident Curtis Kyles, and his life in state prison Angola. Horne describes how the “huge and sweeping arc of the Mississippi River” is the penitentiary’s most “impregnable border”.
Horne also describes the mental tortures inflicted by time in Angola in terms of a river. Sometimes, when the hard days pass slowly, it’s a “sluggish bayou”, but sometimes, especially for a man with an execution date hanging over him, it’s “rapids”.
And just the other day, I attended an event at the London Transport Museum that included a talk by Professor Pat Brown of Kingston University about the Thames and rivers in general and what they mean to us. “Everyone understands something about a river,” said Professor Brown, and it’s true. Rivers do run alongside most of our lives, in one way or another, and certainly in a very literal sense for anyone who lives in London or New Orleans. But it’s also true in a symbolic sense: rivers and how they work represent many things about life.
They are “a corridor for imports and exports” Brown said, which has certainly been true of both the Thames and the Mississippi, and I think also symbolises how many things come in and out of our lives. Rivers are also “fluid networks”, she said, and represent how we would ideally like our transport systems, and also other ways of connecting, to operate: swiftly, smoothly, and knowing no borders – who knows, maybe there is a secret channel between Mother Thames and Old Man River?
Brown’s second lesson was: “Make room for the river”. This seems to me to be both a practical guide to flood defence – as both London and New Orleans have learnt through painful experience, this means working with a river, not fighting it. But I’d like to think the maxim also carries the sense of making room for the powerful effects that close contact with running water is thought to bring about.
Both London and New Orleans are river cities, and both are sites of transformation and rebirth. Rags to riches (and sometimes to rags again) in London, symbolised by apocryphal stories about medieval mayor Dick Whittington. Happiness to sadness (and back again) in New Orleans, drawn every year into the slow ebb and flow of the carnival cycle. Prisoner Curtis Kyles even saw death become life again. Rivers, perhaps because their waters change all the time yet stay the same, carry mysteries of these kinds in their currents.