THE LAST VOYAGEPosted: January 28, 2012
THE GUNS FIRE EVERY MINUTE. Under the bare mottled plane trees opposite Cradle Tower the crews of the Honourable Artillery Company serve their 25 pounders in ceremonial drill. We hear orders barked, see the smoke a split second before the explosion. With each report pigeons and gulls take fright, wheeling in scattered confusion over the bridge and the anchored barges and the black and white walls.
It is cold here on the bridge, bitter cold. The wind, like the tide, is coming from the east; coming up from the North Sea past Tilbury and Greenwich and Woolwich and Wapping, past the places where the bombs dropped and the crowds shouted “Good Old Winnie” to the man we are waiting for.
Apart from the guns, it is very quiet at the Tower. Officers with swords at their sides walk slowly up and down, glancing often at their watches. It is so quiet that we can hear the water eddying about the pier. Time passes. Time moves, sad and grey with the dun-coloured river. The gulls, more cautious than the pigeons, whirl high above us. Police launches hover in the current. It is half past noon and Winston is on Tower Hill.
And then they come. Down the slope, over the cobbles, under the trees come the pipers, playing their lament. If the pictures are true they will show purple-grey and green and brown, and the black of bearskins, and if the memory is kind it will let us keep this hour for the rest of our years.There is no turning away now, no show of not caring: it is nothing to do with the wind that there are tears in our eyes. Opposite the wharf the Trinity launch drifts, recovers position, edges closer as if in anxiety. The guns are still. The watchers on the bridges are still. Even the current itself, checked at high water, turning, hesitant, joins the rest of this grieving January world.
It is almost over. The bands have stopped, the bosuns’ pipes have shrilled. They have put the man on the afterdeck. It is the water that has him now. Some say that the river route was a matter of convenience, but we prefer not to believe it. We like to suppose that Winston himself would have chosen it. Winston, this Former Naval Person, First Lord of the Admiralty, Elder Brother of Trinity House, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Winston, always a little comical in his military guises, but never in peaked cap and reefer. Winston on his wartime naval occasions at Spithead and Plymouth and Portsmouth and Dover. Winston on the Prince of Wales. Winston on the Vanguard. Winston on this launch, under that flag.
The Havengore moves. The Trinity House Landward fusses and shifts and takes the lead; then, unannounced, unexpected, the great dockside cranes that have been keeping giant sentinel above the river dip slowly, bow to the procession in a gesture of indescribable eloquence. And then, out of the east, the fighters come; they dive, swoop, roar as if defying the mortality that has claimed what we half believed to be immortal. Three launches carry Winston towards Westminster. Three swans, sedately, arrogantly, follow them under the bridge.