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Thames: The Biography

The story of the 215-mile waterway that predates human civilization.

By Jeremy Kutner / December 30, 2008



When Charles Dickens stood before the meandering dark of the Thames River in London, he was struck with melancholy. This was a river, “Lapping at piles and posts and iron rings, hiding strange things in the mud, running away with suicides and accidentally drowned bodies faster than a midnight funeral should,” he wrote in an essay from 1853.

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“This river looks so broad and vast, so murky and silent, seems such an image of death in the midst of the great city’s life.”

The Thames is a river often overlooked in discussions of the world’s great waterways. Morose and staid, the Thames is more often linked to London’s cold and dreary weather than to its lyricism. It’s a vision that gnaws at Peter Ackroyd, the prolific British author best known for his 2000 book “London: The Biography.”

It gnaws not because Ackroyd disagrees that’s what the river once was, and not because he’s an unrepentant romantic, but because it fails to see so much of what the river actually represents. For him, the river is itself the great city’s lifeblood, and not simply an unpleasant London footnote.

In his new work, Thames: The Biography, Ackroyd sets himself the difficult task of unearthing the personality of one of the most storied rivers in the world.

More impressionistic survey than history, Ackroyd takes on a massive challenge: writing about a 215-mile-long waterway that predates human civilization and figures so prominently in British history.

This is the river that hosts the British Parliament; the river where four miles of barges followed Anne Boleyn, dressed in gold, as she traveled to her coronation; the river where Julius Caesar battled for a new chunk of empire.

He comes up with two solutions to this project, first by slicing the river’s cultural impact into distinct categories, and, second, by walking us, in 40 pages at the end of the book, village by village, from the river’s source to the sea.

We learn not of how the river directed the settlement and habitation of England but of how the river has served as a religious symbol, how it has figured into military history, and how it has been represented in song.

Ackroyd offers tender thumbnail sketches of a variety of Thames-related themes. He analyzes the history of the song “London Bridge,” investigates the etymology of the name “Thames,” and discusses the lives of the dock and boat workers who made their livings off the river.

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