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.

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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit