A call came out of grey skies. Hurrying to meet my arty niece who was in town for the Frieze art fair, I fumbled for the right thing to press on my mobile phone. Yes, that’s me. Yes, I’m the author and publisher of ‘Father Thames’. Nominated for what? A SAFTA? How lovely, but what exactly is that?
Well, it turned out that SAFTA was an acronym for Southwark Arts Forum The Awards, and this was the first year that the borough’s networking organisation for the arts had handed them out. The ceremony would be at Nolias 11, a jazz venue in Stamford Street, where winners’ names would be announced to an audience in lounge suits and cocktail dresses. It had been a while since I wrestled a tie into a half-Windsor knot, and I wondered if I might rather stand out among Southwark’s young creatives.
To calm my quickening heart, I visited Dulwich Picture Gallery’s current exhibition to see An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. The river has always played an important part of the city, its ebb and flow inspiring artists and writers. Pre-Embankment, Whistler’s own studio was right by the water in what was to become Cheyne Walk, and he cast his eye over scenes from Battersea to Rotherhithe. The Crystal Palace was visible from his studio, too.
He never ventured further down the Thames, and, being American, he would have stepped ashore in England at Liverpool or Southampton, visiting France from Folkestone or Dover. Yet for more than 2,000 years that’s the way most people came to London, sailing up from the estuary 40 miles away. That’s how my father, a merchant sea captain, used to come and go from the docks.
It was only when I moved to Peckham a few years ago that I started to think of him in terms of all the people who had arrived up the Thames, from the early settlers and invaders to merchants, artists and artisans, royalty and refugees. Last year I wrote some of their stories, which were handed round at Tales from the Thames, a day of writers’ talks at Somerset House. This year, I put these stories into an illustrated, hardback book, adding a semi-autobiographical story about the search for my father, and I had a few copies printed.
Among local bookshops kind enough to take copies was Woolfson & Tay, in their new premises on Bankside, and it turned out that it was they who had nominated me for the SAFTA.
The evening at Nolias 11 was dazzling and well organised, with a Malaysian buffet and music from Zoe Devlin. Winning envelopes were opened by the sponsors of each event: Leathermarket Community Project won Best Community Arts Project; CoolTan Arts won the Celebrating Diversity category; Winsome Duncan was the Emerging Talent; Blue Elephant Theatre took the award for Performing Arts; South London Women Artist (SLWA) Dinner Party won Visual Arts; Corsica Studios was the Music winner; and Teresa Early became the Arts Champion.
Madalina Slupic and Jaypreet Dhillon from sponsors Pharma Publications opened the winning envelope for the Literature award. The name on the card was mine. To the generous applause of the young crowd I accepted the splendid SAFTA trophy, made especially by London Sculpture Workshop. And I couldn’t help thinking that, as a sexagenarian who had never received any kind of prize before, I was there not so much for my literary prowess, but in order to give people hope!
For more information about me, please visit my website: www.rogerwilliams.eu