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Only Disconnect

It was a sad day when Hammersmith Bridge closed. I still can’t get over it. And, right now, no one’s allowed under it either.

There’s always a little hiatus between societal change and its impact on our physical world but the symbolism of the closure of Hammersmith Bridge was so obvious, half a world away, The New York Times declared “London’s Bridges Really Are Falling Down.”

After admitting they stole the headline from a small girl’s placard protesting the closure of the bridge, they argued that crumbling Hammersmith, London and Vauxhall Bridges, as well as creaky Tower Bridge getting stuck open a couple of months ago, were apt metaphors “for all the ways the country has changed after a decade of economic austerity, years of political wars over Brexit, and months of lockdown to combat the pandemic”. Since then Wandsworth Bridge has also joined the queue of single lane, worker free, conefests.

But the metaphor goes much deeper. “Building bridges” is, of course, the idiom for peace and understanding; making connections, compromising and appreciating other opinions. But, there is no place for bridge building in an age of outrage and division, of shouty confrontation and discord. The quiet art of tolerance seems as archaic as needlepoint, whittling and dialling phone numbers… with a dial.

My generation saw the loneliness of the world and ached. We created the technology to connect us all together, imagining a borderless world where empathy and understanding would reach out across the globe. We thought that assumptions of the inferiority of others were just irrational xenophobia – once we could reach out and talk to each other as individuals, instead of just being represented by the politicians we elected, class and national differences would dissolve and we would discover that there was “far more that unites us than divides us.” This was the line the optimistic, moderate, Labour MP Jo Cox used in her maiden speech. One year and 11 days later a nationalist Brexit supporter divided her with a knife and a bullet.

Thirty years of the internet and it turns out that other people actually are hell, and our neighbours really are the humongous tossers we always suspected they were. But now we have to see it all the time in posts and tweets and cringe worthy TikTok routines. I can no longer bear witnessing the hourly pontifications of idiots and selfish neo-fascist halfwits, but HM Government and the Trump Administration insist on dominating the TV news. Then on social media they are joined by a chorus of determined Katie Hopkins-lite outragemongers who bristle with indignation at the wearing of masks or the audacity of immigrants trying to paddle across the busiest shipping lane in the world.

Equally, there are any number of right-thinking individuals who cannot bear the liberal, “bed-wetting”, wooly opinions of people like me. We have built bridges to the rest of the world only to discover that we are far more comfortable with our assumptions of superiority than having to accept others as equals. Who would have thought?

So, in what has become an over connected world, we troublesome humans are trying everything we can to disconnect again. Many have secretly welcomed the Covid lockdowns as a time out from having to manage all the idiots in our lives emboldened by having found a community who agree with them, albeit online. Our anger at everyone who cannot think like us is driven by géphyraclasm, the instinct, the need, to demolish bridges.

A bridge too far?

The reason why Hammersmith Bridge will languish for years, or even fall into the tideway, is because it has become a living embodiment of our grave new world of conflict and disconnect. A left-wing council (Hammersmith) unable to afford to fix it and a Transport Authority (TFL) haemorrhaging money in a go-to-work-from-home new order, are unable to convince an adversarial right-wing government to help stump up the cash. And of course they have bigger fish to fry, or are hoping too if their Brexit fishing-rights quota-bartering succeeds, rather than placating a few nice Barnes residents heading north to get to the shops, doctor and work, and a few thousand school kids heading south to get to their schools on foot. Even if that does prevent traffic gridlock, reduce pollution and promote social harmony. Bad will, misunderstandings and a lack of willingness to connect mean London’s second most beautiful bridge is likely to be demolished or simply collapse.

Joseph Bazalgette, Man of iron

Even the bridge’s construction bears metaphors for these ungiving times. Instead of bendy steel, that gives a little as things need to shift, Victorian sewer and tunnel maestro Joseph Bazalgette, engineer of the most magnificent sideburn to handlebar moustache constructions, built Hammersmith Bridge using stiff, unyielding cast iron. Which means that the bridge has not so much expanded and contracted over the years but cracked. And, as Hammersmith Councillor Stephan Cowan pointed out, it means “we would not be given any notice, it wouldn’t bend first then fall, it would just snap.” Another metaphor for the modern mind on social media.

Bazalgette’s bridge replaced an earlier one that, according to Wikipedia “was no longer strong enough to support the weight of heavy traffic”. Back then, a temporary bridge was built while the present one was constructed. So it is not beyond our abilities; only our will.

But Hammersmith Bridge bears a further burden of symbolism. It is London’s only bridge which, crossing from south to north, steps down in prosperity rather than up. Barnes on the south side is a wealthy leafy enclave, much of it owned by two of Britain’s most expensive Day Schools, where there are large villas once popular with BBC executives able to cross the bridge and motor up to White City’s Television Centre in minutes. Hammersmith, on the other hand, is the proud home of a Primark and some of London’s most deprived estates. Where once a bridge stood to bring the two together, now a two hour bus ride is the best that can be done and a mooted ferry service won’t be ready until spring 2021.

A symbol of disconnectedness in a plague time, when connecting with other people is deadly, and when Britain is trying to disconnect from Europe and Scotland from England and an over connected world discovers it is actually more about divisiveness, and we long to disconnect from our screens, Hammersmith Bridge’s current state has one last twist of metaphoric karma. It even reflects the UK’s Brexit attempt to dismantle the Good Friday Agreement. If the bridge does fall, or is taken apart, it will only be finishing the work of both the IRA and the Real IRA which tried, and failed, to blow it up no less than three times. They recognised the publicity value of such a beautiful icon falling into the waves, cutting off the many Irish pubs and homes in Hammersmith from the sound of willow on leather on the green at Barnes.

Few structures carry such a heavy weight of symbolism, as well as traffic trying to avoid Putney to get to the Kingston bypass. But as we disconnect, and our bridges fall, take heart. Perhaps we are like the walker who comes to a river and finds there’s no bridge and it’s too dangerous to swim. She sees a man on the opposite bank and shouts to him. “How do I get to the other side?” The man raises his hand to his mouth to shout back, “You’re on the other side.”

A version of this article first appeared in

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