Thames: The Biography
The story of the 215-mile waterway that predates human civilization.
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He takes us deep into history, bringing alive distinctively British scenes of a river long ago tamed by the conveniences of modern life.Skip to next paragraph
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“There were soap-works and rubber-works at Isleworth, manufacturers of roll shutters at Teddington and of motor-cars at Ham. There were saw-mills in Pimlico, which became one of the centers of the timber trade. The case army of one hundred thousand workers included dockers and stevedores, lightermen and sailors, all of them owing their livelihood to the tides of the river.”
If all that sounds a little random, that’s because it is.
Majestic in scope but maddeningly short on cohesiveness, “Thames” flitters through the river’s curious past, occasionally alighting on factoids and ruminations, rather like a freshman philosophy major hopped up on sugar.
Take an excerpt from Ackroyd’s five-sentence discussion of what the existence of hermits along the river tells us about the Thames: “There was within living memory a hermit in the woods by the river at Hambleden, known only as ‘Judgment Jack.’ The river offers seclusion, and the stilling of human voices.”
We’ll leave off discussion of the chapter devoted to the connection between the river and severed heads or the one devoted to swans that begins, “Swans exist in many other places, and can be found in locations as far apart as New Zealand and Kazakhstan, but their true territory might be that of the Thames.”
But the distractions of sloppy philosophizing should not detract from the true heart of this book, when Ackroyd neglects his project of eliciting the river’s poetry and instead immerses himself in the raw power of a river whose course has shaped English history.
He doesn’t realize the emotional force of his simply bearing witness to the river until the very end, when he finds himself standing at the estuary where the river flows offshore and mixes with the vastness of the boundless sea.
Here, Ackroyd loosens his anecdotal hold of the river’s history, and is overcome. He speaks of an area in the estuary, a place used for the dumping of London’s waste called “Black Deep.”
He writes, “The estuarial marshes beside the river are liminal areas; they are neither water nor dry land. They partake of two realities, and in that sense they are blessed. That is why the Thames estuary has always been considered a place of mystery and enchantment. At times of low tide the sands and shoals become islands, with the false promise of a haven…. For many centuries this land was largely uninhabited and uninhabitable. As such it exerts a primitive and still menacing force, all the more eerie and lonely because of its proximity to the great city.”
This is not a book that anyone really needs to buy. But if you find yourself in a bookstore, and pass “Thames,” you will find it well worth your while to read the last chapter and fall under Ackroyd’s lyric sway.
Jeremy Kutner is an intern at the Monitor.