SMOKE: The Allure Of Bridges

Originally published: 4 August 2005

I've always loved bridges. I have no idea why.

I think my fascination with them probably comes from the way my mother used to read The Billy Goats Gruff to me as a kid - there was nothing ordinary nor boring about her narration. She was very good at 'doing voices' and each character had its own voice.

In case you really are seriously literature-challenged (no harm in that - who wouldn't prefer slaying 5000 zombies and 3000 un-deads in a network game, to hearing about a few stupid goats and some tit under a bridge?) - the story is that three goats are on one side of a river, and they want to get to the other side where the grass is greener.

Problem is, there's a Troll who lives under the bridge, and whenever one of them tries to cross he leaps up and tunes them he wants to eat them.

Eventually the third goat faces his demons and tackles the Troll, clearing the path for others to cross.

Not quite the literary heights of a Tolstoy, no doubt, and perhaps not in the same league as an early Hunter S. Thompson or Irving Welsh, but a quaint little tale with definite motivational and self-belief and standing up to the bully themes embedded nonetheless.

Each goat followed the same procedure, and my mother had a whole rhythm to it. The goat trotted along the bridge, bell clanking, until the Troll appeared, and then my mother would roar: "Up jumped the Troll! I want to eat you up! he cried."

I would leap out of my pants every time, but I secretly loved it. I could just picture that Troll holding on to the underside of the bridge, waiting for his victims. Rather than empathising with those pathetic goats I dreamed of being a Troll and having a bridge all to myself that I could hide under.

I suppose it goes back to my theme of hiding. I even preferred the idea of simply being a Troll and hiding as people passed by overhead to jumping up and accosting them. I merely wanted to hang under a bridge all day, delicious in the knowledge that those above me couldn't see me.

Ever since then I've just dug bridges. They're so cool.

As a kid I read a book by Captain WE Johns (of Biggles fame) in which the climax was on a dark, crumbling aqueduct at night, and it was a visually terrifying scenario - a dude trying to escape his captors by running over the crumbling, thin top of the aqueduct, with one of them cutting off the way forward and the other cutting off retreat.

There was a great graphic illustration in the book of the entire ghastly tableau, and that image is another that has stuck with me for as long as I can remember.

In about 1988 our family moved into a house in Newlands in Cape Town, which is right on the slopes of the Mountain. One of the rivers - that started right on top of Table Mountain - ran all the way down the mountain and through our garden, bisecting it in two.

When it rained the river would swell and thunder madly down the rocky gorges, and had we fallen in we would have been swept down a storm drain that released the river from our property (in case there's any confusion - we also had a river running through our house in Pretoria when I was a kid - this was a totally different river).

There was the quaintest ever wooden bridge that spanned the river so that we could get to the other side of our garden, and when it was summer the river all but dried up.

It was the most awesome thing to finally have my own bridge to hang under, but I quickly learned that the practicalities of hanging under a bridge - not to mention the incredibly sparse foot traffic over it - left a lot to be desired.

But I would sit on the bridge with my feet dangling off it and stare up the mountain as the river came down, and in winter - with the rains, and the raging torrent thrashing about mere inches beneath my feet - it was a magical place to be.

And of course I played Poohsticks. Who wouldn't?

In case you've never heard of it (and if this is the second time you're acknowledging that I suggest you start reading more) - Poohsticks is a game invented by Winnie The Pooh.

How it works is that you and a couple of pals (or siblings, in my case) each get a stick, then drop it off one side of a bridge. Then you rush over to the other side of the bridge to see whose stick emerges from beneath the bridge first. Repeat ad nauseam.

Once again - not as challenging as, say, a brand new take on quantum physics, but it has a simple, zen-like, naive charm to it which agrees pleasantly with hot sun on your face and ice cold water tickling the soles of your feet.

Once again the common denominator in it all is the bridge.

Other cool bridges I've encountered are the one in Robin Hood (get reading, please - I can't keep explaining this shit), on which Robin fights Little John; the huge bridge that spans the Limpopo river which you have to cross to enter Zimbabwe; a bridge in Boston, Massachusetts, on which we got stuck for hours when driving through because we hit it at rush hour, and if you think our gridlock is bad - try that Boston bridge; and any number of bridges that were blown up to foil the Nazis in those Battle Picture Library comics I loved so much when growing up.

The greatest bridge of all has to be the Golden Gate bridge, and sadly that is one I have yet to visit or drive over. Don't even get me started on suspension bridges - they're just so funky.

I'm still not totally sure why I find bridges so alluring - I think it's because they lend themselves to all sorts of choice analogies.

When you're standing in the middle of a bridge you can go either way and have a different experience depending on which way you choose, or you can simply remain where you are and watch the world pass by for a few quiet moments.

I like that.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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