“… 39 Steps, I counted them. High tide 10:17 p.m.” – an old classic flashed back at Tide Time on the Thames – Tola Adenle

January 6, 2015

Arts & Culture

While I will always remember Austen’s Jane Eyre even though it was the first English classic I ever read – thanks to an older sister who gave me a few dog-eared books during a holiday back in 1958 – I cannot remember when I first read The Thirty-Nine Steps although I know it could not be far from when I first read Jane Eyre. And while quite a few details, including the names of the principal characters and an idea of what the book is about would remain until I grew up and would re-read the book multiple times, the only thing that stuck with me from 39 Steps were the title of this essay, the name, Marmaduke Jopley, and a mad chase on “the Scottish moor” for a crime whose specifics I could not recall. Needless to say, I had no idea what a moor was nor what the Scottish moor was.

Oh, yes, from my “O-Level” – the General Certificate of Education, a West African examination for old British colonies – Geography, I knew what was supposed to happen at low and high tides but until November 8, 2014, that was to remain a crammed idea that I had never really known.

One of those grey English days, my spouse and I were on a visit to an apartment in Richmond that overlooks The Thames. After getting out of the car, we saw a guy parking chairs from a sort of small water-side cafe inside a restaurant. Remembering our first ever visit to the U.K. in 1971 December when it was impossible to buy cokes from a nearby corner shop that had closed by 6 p.m. or thereabout – by law – we thought the cafe was closing for that Saturday late afternoon even while there was still daylight.

We would not be left wondering for long. About half an hour into our visit, we could see from the windows, the water – pardon me, The Tide – moving in slowly, and across the street where a pub sits, men and women started coming out of the beer parlor – to borrow an earthy Nigerian description that would fit the veritable English institution, The Pub! While men came out with their pants (trousers) rolled up – the water was as high as more than a foot from my estimation – at least three women who came out with partners were carried – REALLY – by their guys, and a single woman held her shoes in her hands and had changed into rain boots (wellies/wellingtons) which she apparently had taken along.

Within a very short time, The Tide had covered what had been the entire area where the cafe had been, almost right to the wall of the house where we watched from windows. It was the same across the narrow motor way where the Pub was.

I was mesmerized, and watched in amazement and with sheer pleasure the natural phenomenon that came to life before my eyes after over half a century of not really waiting nor expecting but knowing about something without really knowing it.

It did not take that long a time before the water suddenly started receding, and by the time it was time for us to leave, The Tide had completely receded allowing, once again, a view of the edge of the water, leaving the River Thames at the point in Richmond, calm.

What a beautiful experience; what sheer joy that nature can bestow!

Rather than wait to purchase a book with pages that I could savor – I’m not a fan of reading from pads/kindles – I downloaded an abridged edition of 39 Steps, the same type I had read over half a century ago and zipped through the 17,170 or so words quickly. Now that I have re-read it, I know that Richard Hannay is a name I should have remembered more than Marmaduke Jopley – the man Richard Hannay, the central character “disliked very much. He was only interested in people with money, and in visiting people who lived in beautiful houses …” but it is the part that had remained with me that is the heart of the story and brings the excitement to a head. I could see why it is difficult to forget how Hannay led government agents to find the scoundrels:

1. A place where there are several paths down to the sea. One of these has thirty-nine steps.

2. High tide at 10.17 p.m. A place here it is only possible for a ship to leave the coast at high tide.

3. …

4. …

5. …

“Look at the time, Bob”, said the old man. “Don’t forget you’ve got a train to catch …”

“I’m afraid he must wait,” I said.


Even if you, unlike me, know what and how tides are, get to know Scudder, albeit briefly, and Hannay, and Marmaduke Jopley … and what led to “Thirty-nine steps, I counted them – high tide at 10.17 p.m.”.




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