It was September… I was 16… My parents had divorced, my mother had left us all, and my dad had been diagnosed with cancer. From then onwards, he became a completely different person, as if his days were numbered and he wanted to do all that he had never been able to do, offer all that he had not yet offered. My father was one of these rare people who knew me by heart, every inch and every crack of me. In December that same year, he took us — my brother and myself — to London. It was our first time in the British capital. We were tourists, exploring some of the most iconic areas of the city. After that intense three-day trip, we came back to London a few times, and loved it more following every visit — so much so I decided I’d come back on my own some day, after graduating from university.
Some day soon became today.
I hadn’t come back here since my dad passed away… He used to say: ‘On est bien là’, which is French for ‘It’s nice over here’. Here was the South Bank, or more specifically the ‘relaxing and peaceful’ stroll along the river Thames, as he used to describe it, the roughly two-hour walk from Embankment to Tower Bridge. He enjoyed this place and its atmosphere just like a child enjoys Christmas. The South Bank had always been a must-do for us — every time we crossed the Channel and reached the shores of Great Britain. Every time, we would follow the route of the Jubilee Walkway, going through central London and developed for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. We would be our traveller selves, mixing with the Londoners and meeting with the immensity of London’s multiculturalism.
Today, I have become a part of this huge ethnic mosaic of foreign students and professionals, come to the European version of New York. But I don’t experience the South Bank the way I used to. It isn’t any less good. It simply is different.
Coming back for a stroll along the Thames without my dad was strange. Not any less good. Just different. On that day, I met up with my friend and photographer, Tom, for a walk along the river and a talk about photography, among other things. Since my dad passed away last October, Tom has been one of these few friends to help me move forward. I was re-experiencing the past every time I came back to familiar places, such as the South Bank. But he has been one of these people to give me a fresh experience of it. We were supposed to meet on the bridge between Embankment and Waterloo. But each of us being on a different side of the railway, it took us about 15 minutes to actually encounter.
Once we found each other, we headed towards Tower Bridge. At the other end of Embankment Bridge, we were immersed in a very vibrant part of London, from where the view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament is as breath taking as the feeling of powerlessness is present when at the foot of the London Eye — this gigantic 135 metre-high observation wheel, composed of 32 exterior glass-walled capsules, and offering unique sights over central London. I remembered coming here the day after my 20th birthday during summer 2014 with my dad, brother and best childhood friend. I recalled they had all absolutely wanted to have a ride on the majestic London Eye, so we did. We took off and slowly discovered London from a new angle. ‘It’s a shame it’s raining’, my dad had said. I didn’t think so. The rain had only somehow reflected the natural beauty and charm of the British capital.
A few more steps forward and I realised there is also something a little wild about the South Bank. The gulls were squealing squawks from someplace else, the atmosphere was windy, the waves of the Thames came banging against the shore, the water was lapping and the beach was covered with some darkish sand, which made me feel like I was somewhere in Brittany, or just anywhere near the sea or the ocean. I think that’s what my dad loved most about the South Bank. The constant reminder of the seashore, the sea air, the salty smell, the calming sound of the river — all of that. ‘London is a bit too busy for me, but I’d like to retire somewhere near the sea.’ he’d told me every time.
On our way, we passed this young man — I guess in his early 30s — with a very serious face and his hair hidden in a sort of flappy grey beanie, not responding to the nice weather of the day or to the smiles strangers were giving him; it seemed as though he was having a very bad day. There was also this girl, sitting on one of those ‘everyone needs a place to think’ benches next to her beautiful pink-toned bouquet and cuddly toy reindeer, looking down at her phone. Further away, we crossed paths with an accordion guy — a typical street artist looking for eyes to consider him, ears to listen to his very playful melodies, and people to simply consider his art, appreciate it and share a musical instant with him. At that moment, I thought of my dad, who used to stop each time when passing a street singer, musician, or any other artist. Through their voice or the vibrato of their instrument, he would let himself be overwhelmed by all of their stories. And then, he would say to me: ‘Go and give him this’, handing me a few coins.
We were now walking in front of the BFI (British Film Institute). ‘I always come here for coffee or meetings’ Tom said to me. In front of this ‘cinematographic temple’ were these outside bookstalls, gathering many vintage books, ranging from novels to poetry, and which felt like a spread of knowledge offering itself to the world. Not far from there was the unavoidable skate park of the South Bank. This place always gives me a ‘power to the people’ kind of feeling and truly reflects the very popular aspect London can possess sometimes.
Like everyday in the wintertime, the night started to fall early and the usual aisle of trees turned into the ‘thousand and one nights’ aisle. White and blue fairy lights were dazzlingly showing us the way. London office workers were hung on their phone, almost running to catch the less busy of the busiest trains at rush hour, not paying any attention to the beauty of the landscape, the haven of peace in front of them. We were here, calm, peaceful, breathing the fresh air, looking up at the sky, and enjoying dawn. ‘This surely is the best time to take photos… because that’s when you get the best light’, Tom suddenly said, smiling. ‘But I like to come when most people don’t so I can show what people are not used to seeing’, he then added. My dad and I had never really paid attention to what time of the day we went to the South Bank. He liked to go during the day for some reason. We were tourists after all, and not strolling along the Thames for photographic purposes. But being here with Tom on that day made me see something else. For the first time, it made me jump from the past into the present and look at this place differently.
As we were heading towards the first pontoon, we found ourselves awe-struck in front of the South-African-inspired 35-foot-high wooden tree house, temporarily occupying the bank of the Thames. It was standing here like some sort of secret garden hidden in a faraway forest, where the only lights were these old-fashioned lanterns. Looking far ahead at the series of upcoming bridges, Tom whispered: ‘I like bridges.’ He paused and added: ‘they give us a completely different perspective’. Once on the pontoon, he was so eager and enthusiastic to show me what he meant when he told me about what he liked, how he was looking at things and finding beauty in the parts he would usually find ugly at first.
At the end of the pontoon it felt like being alone facing the immensity of the river, the brightness of the distant lights, and the grandeur of the city, ready to swallow us. But we stood still. We turned around and gazed at the ‘meteor shower’, formed by the arc of circle of trees lit up in white and blue. These lights felt like stars above our heads, close enough to almost make me believe that my dad had come back from heaven for a stroll with us. After a short pause out of this world, we were heading towards ‘Millennium Bridge’ Tom murmured, stumbling over the name. This bridge presented its own form of chaos, with its constant and endless coming back and forth, but became so peaceful once we were facing the majestic Saint Paul’s Cathedral. I guess this place owes its serenity to its religious and spiritual dimension; whatever it is, it truly made us feel everything that was to be felt in the here and now. Under the bridge was another street singer — as is common to see while walking along the Thames. He was doing a cover of ‘Thinking out loud’ by Ed Sheeran. A few meters away from him, there was a man making bubbles, reminding me that there was magic in some of the most unexpected and unlikely places — beauty in the ugly. Whilst two German little girls were chasing the rainbow-looking soap flying shapes so they didn’t burst on the ground, a 60-(or so) year-old woman groaned about ‘the strong smell of soap here’ with an air of disgust. I reckoned my dad would have laughed at this and turned to me saying: ‘elle n’a pas l’air commode celle-là’, which means ‘she doesn’t look very easy-going’.
Past Millennium Bridge, we passed by the Tate Modern, a huge art gallery converted from the former Bankside Power Station. It gathers and collects contemporary and modern art from around the world and arranges it thematically. Facing the stunning Turbine Hall, I thought of how much my dad loved museums, and maybe this one in particular. He was like attracted by places of knowledge and could spend hours in a gallery. As we were crossing paths with the emblematic building, Tom looked at me and said — speaking of the South Bank: ‘it is probably my favourite place to go to have a walk — it’s peaceful somehow’. Further away, it felt as if time stopped as we were facing Shakespeare’s Globe, which was authentically reconstructed by Sam Wanamaker. My dad would always say, when passing by this spectacular theatre: ‘we should book a tour as well as tickets to see a play sometime’. Among the tourists using this historical site as a meeting point, we could see couples passing by, holding hands, and walking to the rhythm of the water lapping.
When we got closer to Tower Bridge, it felt as though we were entering a village out of London, but still at its heart. Buildings were all made of bricks, including this traditional pub with blazing red windows on the corner of the cobblestoned little street, The Anchor. It felt like entering another century. It was like going back in time while walking under these old-style street lamps. As we were approaching a short tunnel, an intriguing character appeared to us; it was a cellist. He was playing in the street, in this quite sombre subway, busking for money, although it also seemed as though he was playing for himself, for the sake of playing and making only one with the vibrato of his instrument.
Heading in the direction of London Bridge, we passed a lame grumpy man, complaining about the construction and public works and moaning at a worker, who was down a drain. What a contrast when we reached the dazzling Hay’s Galleria, whose Italian-sounding name only revived its splendour. Originally, Hay’s Galleria was a warehouse and associated wharf for the port of London, which was redeveloped as a visitor attraction in the 1950s and now host many boutiques and some chic cafés and brasseries. And finally, far from noisy Tooley Street and crowdy London Bridge Station, we found ourselves face to face with gigantic and majestic Tower Bridge, all nicely illuminated, almost looking like pure gold. Then, I remembered that my dad and I would spend an incredible amount of time just gazing at Tower Bridge. Even at the busiest of times, my dad could step away from all the agitation and breathe the historically loaded air. Amongst the sporty people — who were either very young or in their 40s — and the tumult of tourist groups, my breath was taken away by the bright City. The Shard, the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie… all of these components of London’s skyline were all reunited for a grandiose firework of lights.
We were here, spectators of the heart-stirring and overwhelming show the city had to offer, lost in our thoughts and contemplations. And while I whispered to myself: ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of this place’, Tom remained as mysterious and secret as his photographs can be, and my dad gradually left my thoughts as I was stepping from the past back into now, looking up at the night lights — some terrestrial stars I imagined my dad going back to.