I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe. – William Blake
Properties on the banks of the river were first earmarked for government-approved privatisation some years ago. Though private property had been a constant on the banks of the Thames for several hundred years, this millennium saw the first governmental purchase of several properties and developments along the river. But it was not until it was deduced that it was the proximity to the Thames that was adding the surplus property value to the riverside housing and flats that steps were ensured to take advantage of this by several government bodies. This was the beginning of my role in the department as a legal clerk and subsequent enforcer of the law, the law that began the privatisation of the very view of river. The buying of many tenanted properties failed on its initial attempt. Several government think-tanks were coined to consider the possibilities of moving out difficult tenants; especially tenants with lower wages, those in council flats or those on several forms of welfare benefits. It soon became apparent that a view of the Thames could, in fact, be itself privatised by the government; a form of copyright infringement law being enforced whereby views and even basic experience of the river attained from an area of private property was, by all accounts of the legislature passed by the department of social affairs, illegal. Views of the Thames became available again through a registration system, similar to a subscription system, whereby views out of Thames-side properties could be legally retained by the flat and property owners for an added fee, collected separately through the taxation system. With many of the occupants already living on the river being incredibly wealthy, this was not deemed to be too much of problem.
I have many fond memories of organising such visits to these more wealthy Thames subscribers, setting up official arrangements with some of the wealthiest residents in the city, during which the rate of river-view tax was to be settled at. These tenants would be a pleasure to deal with and one in particular took a great fancy to my company. For several months I would visit her and delight in her wonderful view of the flowing river; a moody jade rippling past the sun-drenched stone of the banks. She would insist on plying me with cherry liquor that was so strong and so sweet that it would take a great deal of effort not to gag with each sip of the red, burning liquid. “I could not live without my view of the Thames,” she would regularly say, half merry on liquor and gin. “It’s a view worth every penny, don’t you agree?”. I, of course, did agree, though not for the obvious necessity of my work. For the river had held a special place in the mindset of Londoners for several hundred years and even I, a resident of a mere suburb far and outside the inner Thames zone, felt a warmth and affection for the water.
I would plead with various colleagues to allow for such visits, of course required officially for the regular inspections of the properties and to ensure that the tenant was up to date with payments of the river-view tax. Some incredibly wealthy tenants had in previous years managed to use loop-holes to avoid such necessary payments and the department made a point of, when catching perpetrators of such an offence, installing the typical view-blocking apparatus to their windows temporarily to make sure the message was fully understood; this view was a privilege tenants paid for and was not a right. The apparatus worked rather in the same way of a blind only the relatively simple system was fitted outside of the building, was made of black metal and controlled via our central bureau. Once the shutters were in place, the office could fully control the view out onto the river from a main communications centre though the richer properties could pay an exemption fee to not have such objects attached to their buildings in the first place, especially if the building was deemed of some architectural worth. My elderly friend was one such tenant, paying a small fee and filling out the correct forms to ensure her building from the turn of the millennium was free from such clutter outside. Good behaviour in regards to payment was rewarded with an extra sense of ease in matters such as this though not everything about my work was pleasant.
With the social housing clauses still being retained from the previous few centuries, what I have relayed so far sadly only portrays a minority of my dealings with clients, for the Thames is bordered by a multitude of social housing with tenants who cannot afford the luxury of a river view. Further down the river, much of the social housing has little changed and taking the train recently reminded me of an altercation that had such staying power upon my mind that I briefly thought of changing jobs; such was the torment and guilt that I was left with. In the district of Vauxhall near where a power station used to reside, several run-down blocks were kept overlooking the Thames. It was deemed too expensive to renovate them and yet also too expensive to build fresh housing in their place if demolished. It was, therefore, accepted that the government’s quota of social housing could be enhanced by reviving the scheme for these buildings. The problem soon arose in regards to the river-view tax, however. Many of the occupants, in fact close to all of them, could not afford the required extra monthly outlay to open the control shutters, of which had been compulsorily attached to every river-facing window by my department within weeks of the government announcing its housing plans.
As much as I protested, I was sadly put in charge of property violation cases on the very banks of the Thames near Victoria. I gazed often at the multitude of lower grade flats on the train over the bridge many a time and was thankful at rarely having to deal with such areas. The process of extra rates upon the rooms in such places meant many were mostly empty at any rate. Because the blocking apparatus was official government property, any tampering was a finable act and liable to further prosecution if the fine could not be paid. Not only this but the blinds were fitted with technology that alerted our offices if even the slightest of tampering was detected. Early on, I remember a senior colleague telling me that the apparatus was deliberately sensitive as they relied on extra funding from lower grade tenants attempting an occasional, unpaid view out of the window. Their social living fund was automatically docked and filtered straight to our department. Now it is simply a burden, a social services problem that gets sub-contracted out to our already under-staffed department. At any rate, I was called upon to visit and give warning of an incoming fine to one particular flat within this social block and so made arrangements to go to the area and visit with the necessary paperwork.
I remember the weather then was particularly miserable and thought of how unnecessary a view outside was at this time of year. I was almost frustrated with the tenants being so oblivious as to how much effort it was on my part to deliver the fine to them and orate the scripted warning about further tampering and potential eviction notices and so forth. The building was cramped in that typical old style from the population boom in the century previous. It looked a grim place, almost all of its windows covered by blinds, revealing the poverty of the tenants within (or lack of for that matter). If I was out of work, I thought, I could perhaps live in one of these higher buildings rather than my own rather dull suburban dwelling. But then, so my mind concluded, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford the view if actually allowed to live in the building in the first place. It was a frustrating quandary but one that faded from my mind as I took the dilapidated lift to the 14th floor and made my way to apartment 350B. The hallway had the smell of congested people, rubbish piled quietly in the corner waiting for the building’s janitor to make his monthly round and remove it. I tip-toed my way around the puddles and objects of questionable sources, and found the flat door. It was the colour of dead skin, shining in the buzzing sulphur light of the hallway bulbs. Knocking on the door produced little effect but luckily, being here on official business and fully within my rights, I had been given an access card and entered the property of my own accord.
The tenant was a single mother and her daughter with a list a troublesome behaviour and lack of various payments for several social amenities laying in her wake. Entering the property, she accosted me almost instantly, emerging from the darkness of the flat and thrusting a blunt object in front of her with one arm whilst her other carried and nursed the child with ironic tenderness. A thick line of daylight cut through the dusty murk of the room, clearly emanating from the broken blind of our apparatus. I insisted that such an action was a criminal offense but it seemed to matter little. She changed tack and began a more pleading line of argument, pointing to the candles in the room that she had resorted to using for light; her electricity had been cut off several weeks previously. On the floor was also a gas burner, clearly used to cook food and surrounded by several greasy pots and pans with various mixtures of baby food and other, cheaper forms of gradually moulding confectionary. I felt sympathy but my main task was to assess the damage, inform of the workmen due to fix the damage later in the week, and the normal fine that such damage elicited. She broke down in front of me, putting the child in a ramshackle cot in the far corner of the room. I won’t give voice to her pleas; that is not my role nor would I do justice to her voice. In any case, society had removed so much of her hope that all that seemed left was a helplessness akin to an almost animalistic desperation for survival.
As I left, putting the final documentation on a dust covered table in the half-dark – wax from the candles having created a lunar patina upon the once fine wooden surface – she grabbed my leg, again pleading for the fine to be dropped. She simply wanted some natural light in the room, some fresh air for the child without heading out into the cold of winter. She didn’t give a damn about seeing the river, so she told me but in less words. I shook her off, uncomfortable with how logical and how much sense she seemed to be making, and walked out of the room. In spite of being in the room for only a short time, a brief spell of claustrophobia had crept quietly to the back of my mind, and my suit and hi-vis jacket had gained a quiet layer of dust and dead skin; such was the hermetic nature of the room. I was glad to be out of the flat, staring back up at the building and at the broken slat, seeing briefly half a face step back from view. She was clearly watching me leave. I endeavoured to avoid following the process of this case and hoped to be put back onto the duties of more high-level tenants. Such ease was, however, sadly not to be.
At the end of the week, we had an emergency call from the installation and maintenance team sent to the property. The man at the other end of the phone was livid, being sent to deal with a “psychopath” when he was simply trying to do his job. Usually we would call the police in such cases but for some reason, I couldn’t quite bring myself to call upon such brute force against such a small and desperate character. Against my better judgement, I told the man to be patient and that I would be down to discuss the maintenance with the client as soon as was possible. I caught the train and looked at the building as it passed over the river from Victoria again. The rebellious slat in the window of the building stood out obviously; in fact it seemed at a glimpse to be the only open slat left in that block of apartments. Making my way back up to the flat, I could hear the men and the woman before I could see them. Turning the corner, I was met with the men in the corridor just as a vase of dead flowers came flying from the open doorway, followed by a stream of abuse and screams. I joined them and observed the dark room, a pair of wide, wild eyes staring back from the within the murk. Had such darkness turned the person into an animal? I pleaded and she could see that I was, at this point at least, genuine in my sadness for having to do this. Walking slowly into the flat, she backed away and sat down on a small couch, her outline framed by the shard of light from the window. I could hear the river lapping against the side of the banks below and briefly took in the view as she sobbed gently, the men gathering their tools. I told her I would do what I could for her though was not entirely sure what this could be. The men sealed the slat shut, the room once again lit only by the septic light from the corridor. They gathered their tools and walked out, soon followed by myself, walking with my back towards the door and apologising profusely. I left her sobbing in the darkness.
A week later, I learned from a colleague in the social health department that the tenant’s child had been taken into custody, leaving the woman on her own in the flat. In my naivety, I hoped that this would make things easier, perhaps allowing her to now afford to pay for a basic view of the river once more along with electricity and other amenities. Two days passed before another notification of broken apparatus was delivered to my desk. I couldn’t quite comprehend it at first; she had yet to pay her last fine and this would at the least double the amount and put her in jeopardy of the law. Reluctantly, I made my way once again to the property, expecting another confrontation, this time with the added anger of a mother having had a child taken from her. Approaching the flats, I noticed a police cordon but thought little of it. I made my way once again up to the 14th floor but found my way barred by another policeman. The woman had jumped from the window, simply breaking the apparatus in order to commit suicide. I showed the officer my credentials and insisted on seeing the damage done to the equipment though it was a ruse; I simply wanted to see her room again. The flat was lighter than it had been during the past few visits, the breeze on the day swirling the various rubbish on the floor around in small whirlwinds. I made my way to the window and looked down. I failed to see the river, all I could see was the covered body below and a small crowd of onlookers. I rung the department and insisted on having the metal blinds fixed as soon as was possible, that day in fact. Making use of the couch, I sat there until the maintenance team arrived, observing the few pictures of the child and the mother together. They seemed fresh and unfaded unlike normally displayed photographs, having clearly not seen sunlight for some time. The men arrived and I watched them fix the apparatus once more. The engineer curved his arm around the blind and pulled it to, my eyes watching the river beyond be hidden behind the black metal once more. I was, for once, glad to see the view of outside blocked as the engulfing darkness once more draped the dead room like thick, black taffeta over the face of a corpse.
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse – William Blake