Len Deighton's London Dossier, Chapter 4: River

By Kevin Mills Last edited 97 months ago

Last Updated 22 April 2016

Len Deighton's London Dossier, Chapter 4: River

A rough guide to London, circa 1967: a weekly look at Len Deighton’s London Dossier, a guide to modern London published during the height of the allegedly swinging 60s.

Photo by Joep Roosen in the Londonist Flickr pool

Until comparatively recently, most Londoners only became aware of the river that ran through their city once a year, during the Boat Race. The rest of the time they wanted little to do with it. Probably because it was filthy, smelly and polluted with everything from toxic chemicals to drowned dockers.

But Daniel Farson saw it differently. It's fair to surmise that Daniel Farson saw many things differently, as he was a myth-making, egotistical alcoholic. However, he was also one of the first — along with (Dr) David Owen — to see the romance and practicality of Thames riverside living.

He bought a converted Elizabethan house on a bend of the river at Limehouse. From here he watched "tugs leading strings of barges (there are more than 5,000 on the river); dirty freighters with trees tied to their masts on Christmas Day, coasters from France, family boats with lines of laundry and boats scampering along the deck; liners from Poland, naval frigates, the Britannia, a submarine, Hovercraft, motor boats and racing skiffs and home-made yachts; and a man on water-skis in a black rubber suit."

In 1967, Farson wrote, there was no speed limit and no one side of the river to keep to. All driftwood belonged to the Queen (one day she's sure to open her royal driftwood collection to an astounded public), and if a boatman fished up a dead body he received 7s 6d if it was on the south side and just 6s on the north "so naturally he rows it to the south."

From today's perspective, of course, rowing dead bodies across the Thames doesn't seem that natural at all.

Farson loved the river and the ships. The sailors too, by all accounts. But he also loved drinking and celebrities, and found a way to combine the two when he took over a loss-making pub, renamed it the Waterman's Arms and started inviting his showbiz pals: Groucho Marx, Claudette Colbert, Brian Epstein, Francis Bacon, Joan Littlewood, Clint Eastwood, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland to name but many. This was what effectively killed the pub off, as people turned up to ogle the slebs rather than actually drink anything.

Farson died in 1997 shortly after publishing his autobiography, Never a Normal Man. Indeed.

Next time, Spike Hughes gets down with his bad self in a chapter on London's classical music scene.

Previous instalments

Chapter 1: Teenagers
Chapter 2: Food
Chapter 3: Drink