Okay, perhaps that is a silly question — of course the poem was written by Rudyard Kipling. At least I’m pretty sure. Dad would sometimes quote “Twenty Bridges from tower to Kew … twenty bridges or twenty-two … wanted to know what the river knew.”
My dad was born and raised in England back at the beginning of the last century when, he would sometimes tell me, “British meant best.” Although he loved America, a part of his heart still belonged to England. So you bet I was thrilled when my second assignment in the U.S. Foreign Service was to the American Embassy in London. I remember walking along the Thames thinking of those twenty bridges … or twenty-two.
Today when I was sorting through (yet another!) box of papers from decades ago in an effort to pare down the clutter, I came across the poem my dad typed out and sent me those several decades ago. It was delightful. And it was actually maybe, somehow, within the realm of possibility that my dad had written it. He wrote poems and he wrote stories. He also wrote letters to the editor and to Time Magazine (I still have a couple that were published) and to his Senator and Congressman and the White House. Dad was thoughtful and articulate. He loved to write.
Back in the early days of television — I’m talking mid-50s here — there was a show called The Halls of Ivy, starring Ronald Coleman as the Dean of Ivy College. The dialogue was urbane and witty, as was Ronald Coleman himself, and I believe my dad identified with him somewhat. We watched the show every week. One day Dad wrote a sketch that he sent them for their consideration. The producers wrote back thanking him for his interest but said they had a staff of writers who handled the scripts. However, a few episodes later, a bit of doggerel that my dad had put in the sketch was on the show, recited (in an off-hand manner) by Ronald Coleman himself. My father was chuffed (as my British friends would say) and tried to act casual, but he was walking on air for a few days there.
So, as I read The River’s Tale, which my dad had sent me, I recognized the hand of a master. I would like it to have been by my father, but I knew all along it was Kipling. Of course I did. Never any doubt. And in case you’d like to see what my dad could have written — but didn’t — here it is:
TWENTY bridges from Tower to Kew –
Wanted to know what the River knew,
Twenty Bridges or twenty-two,
For they were young, and the Thames was old
And this is the tale that River told:
“I walk my beat before London Town,
Five hours up and seven down.
Up I go till I end my run
At Tide-end-town, which is Teddington.
Down I come with the mud in my hands
And plaster it over the Maplin Sands.
But I’d have you know that these waters of mine
Were once a branch of the River Rhine,
When hundreds of miles to the East I went
And England was joined to the Continent.
“I remember the bat-winged lizard-birds,
The Age of Ice and the mammoth herds,
And the giant tigers that stalked them down
Through Regent’s Park into Camden Town.
And I remember like yesterday
The earliest Cockney who came my
When he pushed through the forest that lined the Strand,
With paint on his face and a club in his hand.
He was death to feather and fin and fur.
He trapped my beavers at Westminster.
He netted my salmon, he hunted my deer,
He killed my heron off Lambeth Pier.
He fought his neighbour with axes and swords,
Flint or bronze, at my upper fords,
While down at Greenwich, for slaves and tin,
The tall Phoenician ships stole in,
And North Sea war-boats, painted and gay,
Flashed like dragon-flies, Erith way;
And Norseman and Negro and Gaul and Greek
Drank with the Britons in Barking Creek,
And life was gay, and the world was new,
And I was a mile across at Kew!
But the Roman came with a heavy hand,
And bridged and roaded and ruled the land,
And the Roman left and the Danes blew in –
And that’s where your history-books begin!”