A TRAVELLER’S GUIDE TO PARADISE
Down Jamaica Road at mid-afternoon, round ‘Sam’s Gents’ on the corner, the approach to Paradise is sheltered by a rank of maples. Here, by the docks, you’ll find a suburb on a raft of buried rivers: the largest, the Neckinger, empties into the Thames nearby. This neighbourhood, hemmed by Bermondsey Wall and St Saviour’s Dock, was once a needle’s eye through which the world arrived in England. It was here that the Mayflower’s passengers gathered before crossing the Atlantic, and where the first tunnel under the Thames was dug.
Over time, alluvial silt made these wharfs unsuitable for modern craft. Shipping moved towards the sea, while trade vanished into the stock markets. The river and its bankside lights were used by German bombers on their way to Westminster, and after the war wrecked mansions made way for public housing. If you look hard enough, you’ll see prams full of grocery-bags by the stairs, gaps sawn in the fence, St George’s crosses tied to TV aerials.
I wish you could see him too, here in snug, post-Brexit London. After months at sea, Prince Lee Boo came to Paradise Row in July 1784 with Captain Henry Wilson of the East India Company. Wilson’s ship, the Antelope, was wrecked near Palau a year before, and his crew, stranded on the island, befriended the king and his family. As they left for England, a young prince travelled with them to see their strange country. His father hoped he would become an Englishman. He tied knots in a rope to remind him of home. When they arrived, he went to school with the neighbours and saw an early hydrogen balloon flight.
It was an era of new things. History records that the prince wished he could tell his father ‘the number of fine things the English had got’. But in December, Lee Boo contracted smallpox; no treatments worked, and the prince died two days after Christmas. You wonder, what would the prince say if he were here today? Tarred and straightened, Paradise Row has become Paradise Street. Doors are closed to the August heat, and dust gathers on battered cars. Boys smoke in the shade of a ruined palace across the block.
But he is here. He’s never left. In every era princes have passed through this city, arriving from every continent – on the M3 and M20, on the tarmac at Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton. They’ve brought their tastes and tongues, and their fathers’ ideas of Englishness. Like you and I, they’ve come and found Paradise on this side-street, this very nondescript estate. Look at the stranger walking his dog, empty-handed. Doesn’t he look familiar? Wouldn’t you like to say hello?
This story was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Vulture Magazine entitled “An Anthology” in partnership with MontBlanc
Words by Theophillius Kwek