Not so sweet Thames explored
Patrick Wright's contribution to the Topographics series of talks at the rca was highly critical of the heritage lobby, which he accused of having connived in a 'form of appropriation of the city'. Wright deeply objects to the 'terrible image' of Englishness that underpins conservationist policies, and indeed the entire cultural establishment. He traces its roots back to 'the pale world of Batsford topography' in the 1930s and 40s, when the evocation of the English landscape, particularly the 'cult of the chalk downs', as a 'domain of peace', formed 'part of a national therapeutic' after the First World War.
Wright's aim since the mid 1980s has been to address this insidious tendency in British culture, which he links with the rise of fascism in Germany, through a literature which deals with 'real topography'. His books On Living in an Old Country (1985), and A Journey Through Ruins: the Last Days of London (1991) were intended to 'bring meaning back into landscapes that were fairly depleted', and to clarify the confusion in people's minds between heritage and history. A Journey Through Ruins took as its subject a culturally mixed street in East London, to reveal the nature of localities as 'places of argument' and in so doing 'amplify and deepen the ways in which places function as historical topographies.'
Wright's success has provided him with a public platform at the end of the 1990s that in a sense will be publicly sanctified with the broadcast of his four-part bbc tv series The River, an exploration of the topography of the Thames as it winds its way downstream. Yet, as he revealed at the rca, the bbc mustered considerable opposition to his original concept, and it was all he could do to prevent the film being turned into a 'stream of national identity ending at the Dome'. According to Wright, the bbc was highly antagonistic to his wish to weight the film towards the estuary, because of its working-class identity embedded in an 'almost diseased landscape' - a far cry from ideal images of rural England. The extent and detail of the fascinating coverage that was ultimately put in - including footage in which Wilko Johnson of Dr Feelgood fame compares the estuary to the Mississippi delta, and its abandoned oil refineries to Babylon - was the result of an agreement that the narrative would conclude at the Dome. Significantly, however, Wright has shifted the focus of the millennial theme to the poetic ruins of Millennium Mills on the opposite bank, dating from the end of the last century and named after a celebrated brand of industrially-produced bread flour.
Wright defines his resistance to the mythical images of English national identity in terms of an attraction to the places, such as Canvey Island, where 'the imagery that governs the national culture is seen from underneath', and history is revealed as 'unfinished business.' It challenges, and questions the desirability of, the millennial model of coherent national cultural identity, represented by the Dome.