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Book Review

Extolling on a river

''Old London Bridge,'' circa 1630, by Claude de Jongh is a view of the Thames. ''Old London Bridge,'' circa 1630, by Claude de Jongh is a view of the Thames. (Private Collection/Bridgeman)
By Matthew Price
January 7, 2009
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It's not even Britain's longest river, but the Thames transcends mere fact. It is a symbol for a nation and a culture. Indeed, as Peter Ackroyd writes in "Thames: The Biography," the river is "a metaphor for the country through which it runs. It is modest and moderate, calm and resourceful; it is powerful without being fierce. It is not flamboyantly impressive. It is large without being too vast. It eschews extremes. It weaves its own course without artificial diversions or interventions. It is useful for all manner of purposes. It is a practical river."

Rambling on in his typically oracular style - Ackroydese is one part poetry, another part gibberish - Ackroyd takes a voyage down the Thames, from its headwaters in the Cotswold Hills to the eerie stretches of the Thames Estuary, where the river spills into the North Sea. You have to put up with a lot of nonsense along the way, but he is a genial guide, and he looks at the Thames in all of its contexts: topographical, geologic, economic, religious, historic, and literary. He's after the same themes he's pursued in all of his books, which include biographies of Charles Dickens and William Blake, and scores of novels: the intersections of the mythic and the real in English culture; of the temporal and eternal; of past and present. For Ackroyd, the past isn't merely past; it's alive. He sees Caesar's armies ford the river, catches glimpses of Henry VIII and his wives sailing down the river in grand displays.

The Thames is only 215 miles long, but for Ackroyd, the river is infinitely suggestive. He takes note of the different kinds of weather to be found, and the "particular wind that scuds across the river." The wind generally blows in a southwesterly direction, which, Ackroyd explains, is why it's faster to travel downriver than up. But the same weather that makes the Thames beautiful has made it dangerous over the centuries. The river has erupted in devastating floods - in 1953, 300 people died and 24,000 homes were destroyed after a tidal surge from the North Sea raged up the Thames. London is now protected by the Thames Flood Barrier, one of the great engineering feats of the 20th century.

Britain's capital city and the Thames are inextricably linked, and some of Ackroyd's most pungent writing is inspired by the river's urban sections. The river was vitally important to London's growth as a commercial center and entrepot.

Ackroyd has a special fondness for the watermen, port workers, and others who made a living from the river. There were porters, lumpers, holders, and deckers, among others. Then there were the "mud-larks," a class of scavengers, mostly young children and old women, "who spent their lives in the filthy water searching for small bits of coal, lumps of metal, or stray pieces of wood." Ackroyd notes these dingy, spectral reaches of the Thames were the natural territory of Dickens, that quintessential London writer; in his fiction, the Thames is ever present, brooding, mysterious, melancholy.

Yet Ackroyd also has a feel for the Thames beyond the great city, for the pastoral stretches that run through the countryside; for the many healing springs that are to be found near the river's banks. Ackroyd devotes a whole chapter to the kind of trees that grow along the Thames: yews, poplars, elms, and the evocative weeping willow. He also inventories the Thames's abundant bird life, and the myriad of fish that once swam in the river - shad, perch, salmon. Ackroyd does not gloss over the fact that by the late 19th century, much aquatic life was decimated by pollution. In the 1950s, he reports, there were no fish at all in one 48-mile segment near London.

The river staged a miraculous recovery in the 1960s and '70s, with the growth of the environmental movement. Ackroyd notes that there are now 118 species of fish swimming in the Thames. The river is short and small, but as Ackroyd makes abundantly clear, its reserves are inexhaustible.

Matthew Price (www.price writes.com) is a regular contributor to the Globe.

THAMES: The Biography By Peter Ackroyd

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 481 pp., illustrated, $40

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