Green crossing: Thomas Heatherwick's proposed Garden Bridge across the Thames at Temple
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Bridges are the rarest of industrial constructions: works of utility, yet beautiful and uplifting

Erica Wagner visits the “Bridge” exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands.

Bridge
Museum of London Docklands, London E14

We’re heading west along the river on a bright June morning. Towards the prow of our Thames Clipper, under the aegis of the Museum of London, an excitable Dan Cruickshank is singing the praises of a city both divided and united by the Thames – and marvelling at the bridges that leap from shore to shore. “Audacious interventions”, the architectural historian calls them. He’s not wrong.

For by what other method might we walk on water? You could swim across a river if you had to; you could take a ferry boat, too: but it’s hard to carry anything while you doggy-paddle, and as for ferries, if the weather’s bad or the river ices up, you’re stuck. As we cruise towards Vauxhall, the MI6 building squatting glassily on the south bank, Cruickshank points out the spot where the remains of London’s earliest bridge were found: timber piles dating back to the Bronze Age, 3,500 years ago. A millennium and a half had passed before the Romans built the first real London bridge. “Without that crossing, there would be no London,” he says.

So it’s fitting that the newest exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands is simply called “Bridge”. Following on from the success of last year’s “Estuary” show, “Bridge” will be the largest art exhibition ever to be staged at the museum and is a showcase for its remarkable collections and original commissions. It is a reminder, too, that bridges are those rarest of industrial constructions: works of utility that are nearly always beautiful and quite literally uplifting for those who encounter them.

In the gallery where the works – by artists who range across the centuries, from Piranesi to Thomas Heatherwick – are displayed, the senior curator, Francis Marshall, says, “When you get on a bridge, that’s when you see London.” The exhibition opens with a striking set of images. A pair of glowing light boxes by Suki Chan allows the viewer to hover over London Bridge Station, showing the reach of the Thames as it cuts through the city, bridges stepped along the river’s length. Made in 2011, this is set alongside a hand-coloured aquatint panorama of the city from the river, completed in 1792 by Robert Barker, Henry Aston Barker and Frederick Birnie. This impressive work, over three metres long and half a metre high, gives the sweep of the Thames from Blackfriars Bridge. Here is London as Wordsworth would have seen it when he wrote his sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802: “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/A sight so touching in its majesty . . .”

For thousands of years, the Thames was as sacred a river as the Ganges, as ancient offerings found on its banks attest, and London has always been home to visionary artists. There is something of the sacred in Piranesi’s etching and engraving of the construction of Blackfriars Bridge from 1766, the truncated columns at the side of the great Romanesque arches – their supporting wooden falsework still in place – looking like the ruins of a temple. There is as much of the numinous hovering around Lucinda Grange’s eerie photograph of the tunnelled interior of London Bridge, made this year.

Among the treasures of this exhibition is a photograph: one of the world’s earliest. It is a little salt print made by the photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot in 1845, showing Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s original Hungerford Bridge in the year it opened. By 1860, Brunel’s bridge had been replaced, though its chains can still be seen in Bristol, where they were reused for the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The photographic process that Talbot developed would dominate image-making for the next century and a half: this image is, as Marshall says, “the detonation point of photography”. “In itself and in what it shows, it encapsulates a historic moment. From this point on, we see the modern world that we live in now.”

By 2017, that modern world may include Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge; its idealised design is on show here. One of the most striking features of the image is the absence of cranes on the skyline, as if London would finally be completed by this verdant pedestrian crossing, planned for the river near Temple. But no construction, however impressive, could ever mark an end to this city’s growth.

Citizens of London will recognise themselves in images old and new. The great bascules of Tower Bridge had their 120th anniversary this year; consider George Davison Reid’s photograph taken from it in the 1920s, alongside Marion Davies’s The City from Tower Bridge, taken over 70 years later. The images are nearly identically framed and hold stasis and change in their frames as the great river flows beneath.

Erica Wagner is currently working on a biography of the Brooklyn Bridge engineer Washington Roebling

“Bridge” runs until 2 November

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.