All text copyright Stephen Coates 2006 - 2015


It seems all of London's bridges are stained with blood.

If you had been catching a bus southward on Waterloo Bridge on 7th September 1978 you may have witnessed the murder of Georgi Markov.  He was on his way home after a day's work at Bush House in Aldwych - the home of the BBC's World service where he worked in the Bulgarian department.  LIke Roberto Calvi under Blackfriars Bridge (see 'A Hanging and a Haircut' below) he was assassinated - but this was classic cold war stuff.   Georgi was an outspoken critic of Bulgarian Communist Party Chairman Todor Zhivkov and ridiculed him mercilessly in his broadcasts via Radio Free Europe.  His death is thought to have been a birthday present to the Chairman from certain Soviet friends.

In some ways way it was also a very English Death.  The murder weapon was either an umbrella or a fountain pen and was delivered by a gentleman in a bowler hat (nationality uncertain). Markov felt a sharp pain in his leg and looked around to see the gentleman backing off apologising as though he had stumbled.  A few days later he was dead - fatally poisoned like Alexander Litvinenko a couple of years back - but in this case by the Ricin in the pellet shown above which his bowler-hatted assassin had injected into his thigh. 

I was thinking of all this as we were driving from Brussels after a show with The Real Tuesday Weld last weekend and passed a sign for Waterloo.  Waterloo bridge like the station is of course named after the famous battle when the Duke of Wellington defeated the French and about fifty thousand people died. Can you imagine their ghosts lining the bridge? I always thought using the name was rather tactless towards the French who arrived in London via the station.  (As too apparently did a French politician who asked that it be re-named.  That would have been unacceptable of course but is one of the reasons they moved the Eurostar arrival location to St Pancras Station).  

The modern bridge is rather elegant and without doubt has the best view of any of the Thames crossings in both directions.   In some ways it is also the most female.  It was built mainly by women in the second world war and for a long time previously was known as 'The Bridge of Sighs' because of all the female suicides that happened there (for a beautiful example, check out Vivien Leigh in the film "Waterloo Bridge").  The name works rather well for the romantic trysts for which is suited too - I notice that the British Film Institute which shelters beneath it has become the assignation place of choice for certain internet daters.  I often get approached when there alone with a hesitant "Are you William?", or a gentle cough and an enquiry like: "Is that Frank…?".  
Of course if you've seen Terence Stamp and Julie Christie crossing the bridge in "Waterloo Sunset" that makes perfect sense.

Speaking of which, apart from the perennially lovely Kinks track of the same name, the area and bridge are associated with a few very good songs. Some of my favourites are Abba's pneumatic Euro-salute 'Waterloo' and the very nice 'Waterloo Station' recently penned by Rufus Wainwright for Jane Birkin.   But the most moving by far has to be Gavin Bryars orchestrated loop of a tramp singing "Jesus Blood Never failed me Yet".

The area now occupied by the IMax cinema was for years a bleak submerged roundabout where many homeless people sheltered.  Gavin made the recording in the 1970s whilst involved in filming a documentary about them.  The tramp concerned, a war veteran, is long dead now but he has gained a kind of immortality through this beautiful piece - singing a song which keeps me just this side of Atheism and which is timeless enough to serve as a lament for all Waterloo's dead - whether they be in London or in Belgium, now or long ago.


spillyjane said...

Wonderful piece, this! I am now even happier that we had the chance to meet there last month.

clerkenwell kid said...

Yes - and I forgot to mention when we had tea that we were sitting on a pile go human remains.

spillyjane said...

Again, amazing! Is there any part of London where one is not - at any given time - sitting on or striding over human remains?

I always thought that London was built on - and out of - LONDON. But it seems that "LONDONERS" is the more correct term!

clerkenwell kid said...

I think probably not!

And as for being built on Londoners - they do say that the city is 2metres higher than in Roman times..

Empress Cixi said...

Sung by a tramp ex veteran, makes the mood so authentic ! and your post stronger.
I didn't know women suicide themselves from this bridge... it should be cold around.
If i had to choose a way to suicide, it would be : to jump on the rooftop of a very tall building, like the Eiffel Tower. So that one day in my life, i could fly like a bird !
To die with a smile, isn't it chic ?

clerkenwell kid said...

Apparently in Dickens time up to 40 women a month. Life must have been truly awful.

It was a romantic spot with a beautiful view even then but the Thames would have been pretty horrible to jump into.

Yes, best to stay in the air - and alive - we are agreed!

Anonymous said...

Life probably wasn't awful, but society was a LOT more restricting, especially for women. If they got pregnant out of wedlock or their husbands left them (or they couldn't figure out how to leave their husbands), death probably seemed better than a lifetime of being shunned.
In some ways, society isn't much better today (Minnesota has a disturbingly high teen suicide rate these days, a lot of it because of anti-LGBT bullying). However, there are more options for help, and generally more ways to be accepted no matter how you choose to live your life.
We've come a long way, don't you think?

Empress Cixi said...

"There is only one philosophic problem that is really serious: the suicide", says Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus.

clerkenwell kid said...

It in an interesting one to think about whether life was awful then or not. From our point of view, definately. At the time, i suppose it was just Good and bad.

Very smelly, cold short and brutal for most. Very tough for women - massive levels of prostitution and little legal or medical protection. The water was so bad that most people were pissed the howl time - ale was the safest drink if you were poor - with gin a ubiquitous second

Empress Cixi said...

How sad i would be with ale as the safest drink ! Did Oscar Wilde preferred absinthe as poets ? I love Oscar Wilde.
Gin is for Clerkenwell Kid, and red wine for Empress Cixi. In these times, and nowadays, everybody needs a paradise. How lucky we are to choose our medicine, that's right. ^^

Jack said...

Hello to everyone!
I don´t know why but this post has brought to my mind a weird exhibition I saw many years ago in London. The exhibition was a collection of objects found in Thames river. It was full of the strangest things one could imagine, even some human bones... maybe from people who decided to end their life from the Waterloo bridge, who knows. It was amazing as well as misterious. Isn´t it a good subject for a song Kid?
Thanks again for your posts, always inspiring.
Best regards from Spain.

clerkenwell kid said...

Hi Jack

Thanks - and I remember that exhibition too.
There was a temporary museum with a changing display in the old dock building on the South Bank called 'The Museum Of..." and for a while it was "The Museum of the Thames". Wonderful.

Empress Cixi said...

ps : maybe today it's possible to fly like a bird

clerkenwell kid said...

Hy Lucie - don't try that at home
Amazing but looks like very hard work!

Empress Cixi said...

Ha ha - In fact yes, it looks like a high cardiac training and you'd better to be in a good fit the day you choose to fly.
If i get these artificial wings, of course i'll try at home ! ;) won't you ?

clerkenwell kid said...

I'm going to need a bigger home first.

Empress Cixi said...

Me too, indeed lol