The corner where the route turns left onto Marsh Wall to The corner in Canary Wharf where the route turns left onto Canada Square
Words by Clair Whitefield, images by Charles Allfrey
You are now on the edges of London’s financial district. Once you reach the end of Marsh Wall and turn right, you’ll see it rising up before you: Canary Wharf, its unmistakable collection of offices staggered across the skyline like podiums.
But if you need distracting before then, look out for the statue on your right-hand side. You’ll see it once you’ve run underneath the DLR. It’s above the entrance to a bar named Fridays, which is attached to The Britannia International Hotel.
Let me tell you a story about this statue. He’s the eternal spectator and he’ll be there waiting for you to pass by and watching as you do, whether you’re a front-runner or the last to file through.
“He’s no Michelangelo’s David, is he?” said one of the men who winched him into place. It had taken three of them and a crane to get him onto the ledge. They looked up at him from the pavement and the statue peered out over them, his gaze fixed straight ahead.
He is no masterpiece, it’s true. He is crude and roughly chiselled, yet not so ugly that he deserves his fate; staring at his own reflection in the tinted windows opposite, his view of the river entirely obscured.
He is grey and cast out of cement. His hair is shoulder length and slicked back. His body is bare, taut and toned and his arms are outstretched, holding an invisible offering.
He does not belong here. He is utterly incongruous; a faux neoclassical statue, occupying the same stretch of road as a Londis and a Subway sandwich bar, all of them hemmed in by office blocks and high rises. This is not what he was meant for and the workmen knew it.
“Give the man some dignity,” they said, and there was something maternal about the precision with which they lowered him into place and positioned him behind the balustrade. But nevertheless, get the angle right, look up through the lattice of bars, and you’ll see his meat and two veg perfectly.
Ask behind reception and the concierge will tell you the statue is the hotel’s figurehead. A tribute to the area’s maritime heritage, when ships from the Canary Islands brought citrus fruit to the docks.
For a statue, he was cheap, part of a job lot at an auction following a house clearance.
If you walk into the lobby you’ll see the marble menagerie he was part of. There are statues everywhere. They cling to the walls, flee into corners, lounge on plinths and bookend the reception desk. And that’s just the collection in reception. But they are all over the place; like a defiant fungus that has crept its way from the entrance and spread onto the landings and corridors.
Over the years, the hotel staff had tried him out at various points within the building, but nothing suited him. He’d stood by the conference suite, next to the menu stand on the mezzanine floor, and finally opposite the lift on the sixth floor. Ping! And the doors would open and there he’d be, his grey eyes staring back at you – resolute, unflinching, vacant, his arms open.
If the restaurant ever had a theme night, he’d always be dressed for the occasion. Italian fiesta: He’d wear a Gondolier’s garb – stripey t-shirt and red trousers; Curry Night: He’d be kitted out with a turban; Burn’s Supper and he’d be restyled with a kilt, a sporran, a jaunty Tam O’ Shanter and a pair of bagpipes swung across his chest. But whatever they did, he’d always look like a drunken stag in a fancy dress forfeit. That’s why, in the end, he got shunted outside.
So there he stands fixed to the prow of the hotel, facing the river. He stands on his viewing deck waiting for the Thames Barrier to split. From his crow’s nest, he waits for the water to come surging up the street, lifting parked cars as it thunders through, bashing against the sides of buildings.
He waits for the dirty river to explode the cracks in the hotel’s foundations and set it on its way. As if this building could cast off and break away. As if when the Thames rises the hotel will sail. And when it does, he’ll be at the front of the good ship Britannia, as it cuts its way through the water and on to the sea. Then he’ll be free.
Every April he thinks it will happen. He feels a slight tremor shake the ground as the first pack of runners turns the corner and onto Marsh Wall. At first he thinks it is the river gushing towards him. His arms are outstretched welcoming it and he will not know for sure if it is the Thames that has burst its banks until he sees the runners – or the water – pass beneath him.
What starts as a few lightning-footed athletes is followed by hundreds and then tens of thousands of feet slapping the concrete and filing passed his look out. The reverberations of their footfalls, travelling down from street level and gently nudging the building’s foundations.
He can feel this rush of people surrounding him and he wills every runner up the street and past him. But the cavalcade dies back to a trickle after four hours, the crowds vanish and he remains rooted to the spot.
He closes his eyes that evening and imagines that it has worked: that behind this year’s marathon runners, the river follows, uprooting his building and setting it on its way. But when he opens his eyes again, he meets his own gaze in the windows opposite.
But he knows it’s only a matter of a time.