Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Thames Barrier. (Mr. Smith Goes To.)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Thames Barrier. (Mr. Smith Goes To.)

Article excerpt

The Thames Barrier looks like a line of stepping stones, or perhaps conch shells. On most days, there is clear water between the shells, to let shipping pass. Today, they are threaded by a chain of metal, the harrier's movable gates, and there are raindrops on the screen of my computer. (A note to the reader: there are bold experiments with the idea of the author-in-residence at the time of writing, which happens to be 10.45 on a Sunday morning. Fay Weldon has checked into the Savoy for three months. Will Self is installing his escritoire in a Liverpool tower block. Both intend to write their new surroundings into the pages they produce. Taking its cue from these writers' roadshows, this account of visiting the Thames Barrier is being written at the barrier itself. Today is the day when this prodigious watergate is raised, in its annual test. The test I have set myself is to finish before the dummy run is concluded, in about six hours' time; or before the battery of my laptop runs flat, whichever is the soone r.)

Dozens of people have come to Woolwich Reach to watch engineers prove that the Thames's silver bangle is practical as well as elegant. It's quite a thing to see the gates rising from the waves, pushed by rocker beams, the tense yellow legs of the giant grasshoppers who seem to be nesting in the shells. The environmental picture is uncertain -- the river is forecast to rise by 60 centimetres in the coming century. …

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