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Amorous Padlocks on the High Level Bridge

November 7, 2015


Last night I was wandering round the middle of Newcastle trying to find a pub full of Laurence Sterne specialists.

(I probably should have just stood in the middle of the street and whistled “Lillibulero” and waited for them to come running.)

Arriving very very late for a Tristram Shandy conference, I was in fact very very very early for the drinking portion of the evening.  However, disastrous and confused timing is the very essence of any Shandean evening so I was able to feel inappropriate and appropriate at one and the same time.

(I’m wondering – regarding the paper I’m giving today – are people chairing at a Laurence Sterne conference in any position to demand that speakers keep ruthless to time?)

So.  Arriving very late for the conference but very early at the pub, I decided to walk back and forth across the river Tyne – across Robert Stephenson’s very wonderful and famous and revolutionary High Level Bridge.  I’ve always been interested in Robert Stephenson, who laid down more railway track than I.S. Brunel and whose engineering achievements are comparable.  Like Brunel, Robert Stephenson had an overbearing father who was culturally and linguistically estranged from the British establishment and who therefore felt under horrible but effective pressure to succeed in life.

The High Level Bridge (1847-1849) is, as the name suggests, a carefully engineered bridge which crosses the River Tyne at a high level. A wrought iron bow-string girder bridge.   At each end of the bridge there are signs giving phone numbers for The Samaritans.  Ah.  Clearly this crossing point has something of a reputation.  I begin by crossing from North to South while gazing west.  It’s very dark by now, but the lights of the city flicker across the still black waters in a strangely pleasurable fatalistic fashion.  When I reach the southern end – having nothing better to do – I cross the road and start to stride back across the bridge – this time from South to North while gazing east, stopping to note another Samaritans helpline advertisement on the way.

If you’re gazing east on this bridge then you have other impressive bridges to gaze at, but my attention was instead focused on a wall of amorous padlocks attached to the steel meshing on my right hand side.  Each padlock (or “lovelock”) bore at least two names.  Such and such loves such and such and variants thereof.  Scores of them, jockeying for position on the mesh.

Now I’ve heard of this phenomenon in Paris.  The Pont des Arts has been bedecked with these things for many decades.  Apparently it’s big in Italy too – to the point where structures that are really too ancient and fragile to bear the weight of too many lovelocks are actually being threatened by too much romantic declaration – structural damage is being done.

(SINGS – “Love.  Love will tear us apart. Again.”)

Now I have to say, I felt very moved by this display.  More moved in fact that I would be by the spectacle of lovelock bedecking tourist sites in Paris or Florence or Verona or some such place.  Lovelocks are merely gilding the romantic lily in such places.  Paris, Florence and Verona were romantic places long before the lovelock concept and I’m not sure that lovelocks have done anything (really) to make these cities “even more romantic”.  Paris doesn’t need more declarations of love.  Paris IS a declaration of love.

But this bridge, which was constructed in a spirit of iron utility and dour industrial drive – this bridge which risks makes people feel very small and vulnerable – this bridge which has clearly been the venue for many a suicide – this bridge clearly needs love and can be changed by lovelocks.  The suicide helpline signs at either end of the bridge only make the lovelocks more poignant.  I wonder how many incipient suicides, whom the Samaritans phone numbers did not reach, were deterred at the last minute by the lovelocks?  Considered collectively, they look like a kind of protest against mortality, or a protest against mortality’s grimmer and more pompous claims?  It’s not that love can conquer death, it’s that love can stare death in the face and keep smiling.

I’ll learn a lot about Laurence Sterne today.  But I don’t know that I’ll have done anything more Sternean than accidentally visiting the lovelocks of the High Level Bridge.

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