A View from Hammersmith Bridge
15 August 2008
The part of the global village we live in usually has a representative image, a natural or man-made landmark, Mount Fuji or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In this case, it is nothing so grand, just a bridge left over from the nineteenth century. Although not popular with tourists to London, it found a place in the hearts of Irish “freedom-fighters” who tried three times to blow it up, the last time at the antisocial hour of four in the morning. Despite their best efforts, the bridge still stands, but painted such a hideous shade of green, some sensitive people are not sure it deserves to.
I introduce Hammersmith Bridge because an internet guru has told me that this website is “bloody boring". He dismissed protests that this is not a pop site or an entry in Facebook, but a site for serious students of the English language. "Rubbish," he said. Or rude words to that effect. "What your students need is Life. A context for their English. You must activate the language by giving it a local habitation and a name." As you can judge, the guru is an intellectual, with a degree in media studies, and an ability to quote Shakespeare.
Time will tell how far the Bridge can enliven a dull website. Of course, it is a substantial piece of realia, a more solid presence than the International Herald Tribune, the window on real life I sometimes introduce into my teaching. Realia is the collective name given by lecturers in TESOL to any bits and pieces brought into a classroom to give “life” to the language being taught. These realia usually mean travel agency posters of double-decker buses or the Grand Canyon, although audio offers more possibilities with the use of news reports and pop music. Using them, the hard-working teacher could have produced a melancholy lesson on Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger, when he recently celebrated his 65th birthday.
The most effective piece of realia is a teaching assistant, a native speaker of the language. This person can be placed in front of the students, like a specimen from a biology lesson, in the hope of stirring their curiosity, but more often with the result of arousing their contempt. In a more civilized fashion, the drinks of a country offer an opportunity to absorb both the language and the culture: you become Scotch, not by being born in the country, but by drinking it. The trouble is, one remembers the realia, not the language: I can happily recall the spiced flavor of my Swedish teacher’s mulled wine at Christmas time, but to my shame I do not remember much of the language. My own efforts at introducing drink to my students have gone no further than mugs of Earl Grey tea, which is a half-hearted performance. For serious realism, the tea should be poured from a china teapot fitted with a hand-knitted cosy.
The Bridge, then, is real. The place where it stands, Hammersmith, represents much that has changed in the world, especially as a result of migration. It has itself become a global village. Only about half the people living here are actually from families that could be called “traditional English”. The rest are migrants. This 50:50 mix is typical of central London. All 170,000 Hammersmith residents speak one variety of English or another, but they are perhaps from 60 or 70 different countries. How many of your neighbors are from somewhere else?
There are a number of distinct groups. Approximately 5% each originate from the Caribbean, from the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) and, more recently, from Africa, especially Nigeria. Another 5% are from Ireland. In Central London as a whole, these ethnic minority groups make up over a third of the population. The latest migration has been from Eastern Europe, especially from Poland, although that particular tide has ebbed as a result of increased prosperity back home and a fall in the value of the pound sterling. People escaping problems in other parts of the world have arrived, asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia and from East Africa, as well as 1,417 Americans, fugitives from the land of Bush and Cheney.
For an illustrated history of Hammersmith Bridge, and a tour of the Thames, visit
©English Teaching Systems February 2008