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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bridge for the Dying

Always it is by bridges that we die. Has anyone ever taken a moment, before hurling him or herself off the Humber Bridge, to recast the last line of the poem Larkin wrote for its opening in 1981? I come across a simple shrine on Hessle Foreshore, inscribed ‘We miss you Jeff’, and wonder whether Jeff is one of the 200 suicides who’ve gone over the side in its thirty-year history. I find a single shoe and wonder to whom it might belong if not another jumper. A woman travels from Stockport to Hull to jump, with her 12-year old son, who suffers from Fragile X, or Martin-Bell Syndrome. Not Martin Bell the poet, I presume. What might she have said to the taxi driver who took her there? ‘The pub by the bridge’, ‘the bridge’, ‘half way across the bridge...’? How would she have answered if he made small talk? Would she have tipped him, bid him a cheery ta-ra, so as not to arouse suspicion? Another mother and child jump, survive, and are pulled from the water. Someone else chooses to leap not into the water but onto the A63. That would be messy. And while I’m on the subject of suicides, a jumper’s last act, it has been noticed, is frequently to remove his or her glasses. Why? Obviously, they might get damaged on impact, but why the concern for the glasses? A local businessman walks across the river for charity, having carefully studied the charts of the sand banks under the surface of this strong brown god of a river. Sometimes these sand banks build up into islands such as Read’s Island slightly further down from the bridge, opposite the hamlet of South Ferriby and its gigantic cement works. How distant North Lincoln must have seemed before the bridge, when revellers would take the ferry by the Minerva Pub on a Sunday and qualify for a drink as bona-fide travellers. I think of the minor Romantic poet and hymn-writer Henry Kirke White, who writes in his diary of taking the Winteringham Packet through these waters ‘surrounded by a drove of 14 pigs, who raise the most hideous roar every time the boat rolls’. In South Ferriby itself I encounter a charming Russian blue cat named Babushka and ask the bar man at the Hope and Anchor whether it’s true that deer live on the island. Not that he’s ever seen, he answers, while clearly visible in the window behind his head a dozen white-rumped deer canter towards the island’s southern tip. But always in the background thrums the pulse of the traffic over the bridge. ‘Reaching that we may give /The best of what we are and hold as true’? The jumpers’ hands too must reach, in their brief, spectacular fall. That they may give what exactly? Whatever it might be, we will not number among the recipients. ‘Deeper than deep in joys without number’, as another Hull poet, Steve Smith, wrote, ‘The river Humber /turns to deeper slumber.’

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