The hugely industrious and readable Peter Ackroyd has released what can be seen as a follow up to the rather amazing `London; A Biography' with `Thames: Sacred River'. This substantial book charts the history of the River Thames, the vital waterway at the heart of London life for centuries. Given the history of this vital conduit is pretty much the history of the metropolis, at least until the invention of the railway, it allows Ackroyd to delve once more into the murkier and less well known depths of London history.
Ackroyd is never a writer to deliver a straightforward narrative history. And in many ways his subject matter lends itself to this meandering, potted approach. As the river twists and turns, is fed by tributaries and becomes the mighty estuary feeding into the North Sea, so too does the book change subject, period and characters with each chapter. Broad subjects are covered, trade, communications and naval associations, but Ackroyd has a gifted eye for the smaller details and more obscure gobbets of history.
Ackroyd is best served by two key attributes, a voracious appetite for research and a style of prose that is both intelligently accessible and deliciously evocative. It is almost with an unrestrained glee that the author tackles the subjects associated with the river, the same clear interest that sustained `London: A Biography'.
However it is important to note that the book is wider than just being a follow up to that book. The Thames flows from its source at Thameshead to the sea, and as well as London flows through Oxford, Reading and Henley. It encompasses royal history, passing within sight of Windsor, next to Hampton Court, and through Greenwich. It is the artery connecting the heart of empire, London, with the world. It has been the source of great pleasure and entertainment as well as dark sorrows and tragedy. Ackroyd deftly captures the many moods and colours of the river, the characters who have interacted with it, the major events and the minor common happenings to construct a rich and vivid mosaic of life by and on the water.
This is not a complete or narrative history of the river, or the city. There are better books available if one is seeking an overview of these massive subjects. But for an idiosyncratic glimpse of a huge variety of colourful threads of London's watery past, there is no better writer than the talented, readable and researched Ackroyd.
on 1 December 2007
Peter Ackroyd's bestseller London: The Biography seemed to be part of a fashion a few years ago to write 'The Biography' of any kind of inanimate object ranging from the Bible to the Moon. It was however a fascinating journey through the history of the capital and as a Londoner myself I still get a thrill walking through some of the ancient streets and passages (especially those around the river) thinking of who else has been there before me. So what of this history of the river itself?
Following a meandering course this book is divided into short thematic chapters such as 'The Working River' and 'The River of Art'. With this approach Ackroyd is able to write not only about the history of the river but what it represents. Some reviewers have complained that this way of writing is not suited to the subject but I found it refreshing and invigorating to read a writer who sees the river in similar terms to the other great rivers of the world. The Ganges is seen as sacred in India and all life in Egypt runs alongside the Nile. In Britain, the Thames has always been associated with power and industry, literally the lifeblood of the capital but its influence is also felt along its full length from Thameshead to the sea.
If there is a problem it is that Ackroyd tends to give us all of his copious research and so the myriad of facts in each short chapter, whilst thematically linked, can feel a little disorganised. It is his trademark enthusiasm which keeps the momentum going though and as we follow the river's course it is hard not to get caught up in its wake. I am sure there are better textbooks available for those who want a more serious study but just as his book on London provided a popular, accessible history of the city this companion volume is sure to do the same for its famous river.
on 11 February 2008
Rather like The Thames itself, this book has a mysterious beguiling quality. It draws you in and won't let you go. Ackroyd's prose, his playful mingling of history and legend, his almost overwhelming attention to detailed research combine to make this a compelling, oddly unsettling read. I learned so much.
on 9 February 2009
I am not surprised that this book delights and exasperates reviewers almost in equal measure. Ackroyd's marvellous knowledge of London and its surroundings, and his seemingly endless store of anecdotes and nuggets of historical information, make this book worth reading. But be ready to be annoyed by repetitiveness, sloppy editing, and a division of chapters by theme that makes the overall timescale of the history hard to follow.
Just about any other contemporary author would have been unable to write a historical treatise of this ambitious scale without imparting a more rigid formal structure. Ackroyd shakes unconnected snippets of London life from his huge sleeves like a magician, and just about gets away with it,.
Anyone who has read Ackroyd's `London: the Biography' will not be surprised that this book about the Thames is no straightforward history of a great river. Rather, Ackroyd sees the river as a metaphor for some everlasting truths and he approaches this via a series of thematic chapters: `The Working River', `The River of Death', `The Sacred River' etc. Each of these is fairly short, but all are packed with vast numbers of facts, anecdotes and speculations. Unfortunately, because these are thrown at the reader in an almost random fashion, the effect is often overwhelming. Lists of examples can extend over whole paragraphs and are sometimes simply boring and even lessen the impact of the point being made. I was prepared for a rather rambling unstructured style, but the writing here is far more flowery than in `London' and too mystical for my taste. Also, too often the author has difficulty in separating speculations from facts. Wanting something to be so, does not make it so. Peter Ackroyd has a substantial and well-deserved reputation, not least for the wide range of books that he has written, but for me this is not one of his better works.
on 11 May 2008
Chapeau! Kudos! Peter Ackroyd has done a terrific job with this book. From his early novel _Hawksmoor_, Ackroyd has evolved into the chronicler par excellence of London, both through his book of the same name and by the flavour of London life in his biographies of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Sir Thomas More, Dickens, Blake, and other works (both fictional and non).
This cornucopia has history, geography, geology, spirituality, sociology, literary and cultural referencing, psychology, life cycles, transport, trade, ecology, hedonism, commercialism. It's a staggeringly accomplished chronicle and a worthy tribute to the liquid heart of London.
Ackroyd ranges masterfully from facts and statistics - some of them fascinating - through to dreams and legends. Although London dominates, this deals with the villages and towns along the Thames - e.g., Windsor as represented by the poet Alexander Pope. The historical thread moves from the prehistoric river, and the Thames Caesar conquered, through to the modern flood protection afforded by the Thames Barrier. Notwithstanding its erudition, the flow is ceaseless and the touch light, so that it's an easy, satisfying read.
Thankfully, Ackroyd controls his trademark fascination in filth and murk aspects, balancing them judiciously with the elevated, refined and spiritual. He delightedly describes the Fleet as "merd-urinous", "wholly rank" and "the excremental centre of London's polluted life". This is tempered by the view "at twilight, a soft grey, a lacustrine light."
With its buried coins and weapons, syringes, severed heads, the river is a "depository of past lives" but Ackroyd gives us a final vision of "estuarial river" rushing to the "sea's embrace."
I can do no better than let the chapters speak for themselves:
1. "The Mirror of history": river as fact (statistics) and metaphor - the "museum of Englishness", symbolizing the national character. Time of the river: Hydrologic and geologic.
2. Father Thames - river deities, Thames Basin, birth/source aspects
3. Issuing Forth: tributaries, especially the Fleet.
4. Beginnings: Ice Ages, barrows, and henges; Caesar and Vikings.
5. The sacred river - saints and ruins: includes Norman palaces, Westminster Abbey, monasteries(work and education), plague and fire.
6.Elemental and Equal: riverine cycle/essence and social upheavals/revolutions.
7. The working river -: River boats, London Bridge and subways, river law and conservation; the criminal element (theft, witches); watermen, porters, weir keepers.
8. River of trade - wharves, mills, breweries, docks, modern decline - new financial districts e.g. Canary Wharf and Docklands.
9. The Natural River: fog, wind, rain, the Thames Barrier (flood protection). Sacred woods and trees, villages, swans and whales (!)
10. A stream of pleasure - pubs, sports, carnivals, Lord Mayor's pageant, physic gardens Contrasts with mortality, sewers, and typhus in the 18th-19th centuries.
11. The healing spring - wells, hospitals, flowers. A rhapsodic chapter....
12. The river of art - Turner, Conrad, Jerome - chroniclers (the 16th-century antiquarian John Leland), novelists (Dickens, Grahame), poets Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Shelley, Arnold.
13. Shadows and depth - Visions of Carroll and Traherne. Local history; dreams and legends.
14. The river of death - riverine findings (coins, weapons, syringes, severed heads). Mythology. Suicides, murders, drownings.
15. The river's end - the estuarial river which "rushes to the sea's embrace."
A grand achievement. Prepare to be delighted, amazed - and moved.
This is an odd and frustrating book; I found it really hard to read it through to the end. His book on the Thames is neither a linear journey through time nor one through space; rather, like his `biography' of London, it is a series of short essays on various themes. His work mirrors what he writes of Camden's narrative: "It is an encyclopedia, a compendium and an anthology rather than a topography, but it has one clear theme - the Thames is the great unifying force which encompasses everything." (The book does end, however, with a long gazetteerial appendix, "An Alternative Topography, from Source to Sea".)
Ackroyd describes the Thames as "the shortest river in the world to acquire such a famous history". But much of what he has to say about the river's symbolism and essence can be translated to rivers the world over. Reading Ackroyd's pages, where he alludes to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and to ancient Greek myths and Rome, just led me to feel that he should get out more!
So, is there nothing good about this book? Well, there is always Ackroyd's occasional literary gem to be found amongst the river's tidal mudflats. Every chapter, sometimes every page - on occasions even every paragraph - possesses a worthy quote, a golden sentence on which to ponder. For instance, Ackroyd describes the results of geological processes as "ribbons in the hair of Gaia." And on the subject of Thames rain: "There is something soothing about water falling within water. To look at rain falling into the river is like watching flames within a general fire; it is the delectation of observing an elemental force mingling with itself."
We move from literary treasure to fantastic fact or a new and hitherto unthought-of twist on some fact. But much lies in that slippery region between fact and feeling. For instance, does the Thames cross the prime meridian three times at Blackwall? Well, only if you keep your course to the extreme shoreline, first one side, then the other. And if the great Western railway had reached Reading from Paddington by 1840, as Ackroyd states, then the crossing at Richmond in 1848 could not be the first railway bridge over the Thames. (As an aside, `Steam & Speed' is one of Ackroyd's more interesting chapters, the author remarking on how the progress of the railway led to places like Abingdon and Reading becoming railway- rather than river-towns.)
Derivations of place-names are notoriously slippery and best left to the experts. (Methinks he has the cart before the horse, for example, when he writes of places named St Anne's Well being a corruption of "the ancient goddess Tan", whoever she might be.) But other cod derivations abound throughout the book, and especially in the appendix. And what are we to make of Ackroyd's assertion that, "There is no reason to doubt that human consciousness is changed by the experience of living above clay, rather than above chalk"?
Sometimes banal statements are made, statements that are hedged with so much ambiguity that their veracity can never be tested: "The Thames itself has always been considered holy." And sometimes evidence is gathered to add solemnity to fancy, such as that the atavistic baptismal quality of the river is supported by there being "at least three churches dedicated to St John the Baptist along the course of the river." To which I can only reply, "Only three?"
Many of the chapters are merely expanded lists. Chapter thirteen, for example, is called `Hail Holy River, Mother of Grace' where Ackroyd provides a "litany of names and places" suggesting "that there is more than a coincidence at work in the association of the Virgin and the Thames." He goes on to note that this has never been noticed before in apparent ignorance of the fact that the saint with the most dedications in Britain is St Mary.
One could and can view each chapter as a synthesis of lists and superficial flotsam, a showpiece of words parading as erudition with fanciful and ludicrous conclusions drawn from a fanciful and naïve - or deliberately false? - reading of the evidence. Take a typical prosaic statement: "They carried most goods upon their backs, since the rough surfaces of the quays and nearby streets were not suitable for wagons." Quays and streets are constructed to be unusable to wheeled transport? There are other examples where false conclusions are drawn or other evidence overlooked. I concluded that Ackroyd is like a modern-day Douglas Chellow (see page 184), conveying "his love of the river to anyone who would listen".
But one sometimes wonders whether Ackroyd is having a joke on us, tongue firmly placed in cheek. Such times are usually signalled by a phrase like "This may not be true." A wry smile certainly crossed my face at Ackroyd's assertion that an organised journey in 1555 from Abingdon to Oxford to see the burning of bishops at the stake "is one of the first recorded instances of the `pleasure trip' on the river."
The book does come with three excellent opening maps of the Thames valley, demonstrating the wide variety of geographical forms that the river and its tributaries take from source to sea. But Ackroyd makes no use of these: the map makes manifest far more clearly the different drainage patterns above and below the Goring gap than the author's own words to illustrate the geological division.
Ackroyd himself is often absent from his book. There is little personal comment, despite growing up and living by the river for most of his life. It's not until the acknowledgements at the book's end that we read that Ackroyd walked the whole length of the Thames. Perhaps a narrative about his adventures along the way would have been more entertaining than this - admittedly detailed and all-encompassing - but ultimately dry and fanciful potted collection.
The book comes with an eight-page bibliography. Another plus point of the book is its excellent and extensive index.
on 19 July 2012
Thames: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd purports to offer a sister volume to the highly successful London: The Biography. To a point it succeeds, but in general the feeling of pastiche dominates to such an extent that the idea of biography soon dissolves into a scrapbook.
The book presents an interesting journey and many fascinating encounters. But it also regularly conveys a sense of the incomplete, sometimes that of a jumbled ragbag of associations that still needs the application of work-heat and condensation in order to produce something palatable. Thus a book that promises much eventually delivers only a partially-formed experience.
Ostensibly the project makes perfect sense. London: The Biography described the life of the city, its history and its inhabitants. There was a stress on literary impressions, art and occasional social history to offer context. This was no mere chronicle and neither was it just a collection of tenuously related facts. It was a selective and, perhaps because of that, an engaging glimpse into the author's personal relationship with this great city.
Thames River flows like an essential artery through and within London's life. Peter Ackroyd identifies the metaphor and returns to it repeatedly, casting this flow of water in the role of bringer of both life and death to the human interaction that it engenders. And the flow is inherently ambiguous, at least as far downstream as the city itself, where the Thames is a tidal estuary. At source, and for most of its meandering life, it snakes generally towards the east, its flow unidirectional. But this apparent singularity of purpose is complicated by its repeated merging with sources of quite separate character via almost uncountable tributaries, some of which have quite different, distinct, perhaps contradictory imputed personalities of their own.
Thus Peter Ackroyd attempts by occasional geographical journey but largely via a series of thematic examinations to chart a character, an influence and a history that feeds, harms, threatens and often beautifies London, the metropolis that still, despite the book's title, dominates the scene. These universal themes - bringer of life, death, nurture, disease, transcendence and reality, amongst many others - provides the author with an immense challenge. Surely this character is too vast a presence to sum up in a single character capable of biography. And, sure enough, this vast expanse of possibility is soon revealed as the book's inherent weakness. Thus the overall concept ceases to work quite soon after the book's source.
A sense of potpourri and pastiche begins to dominate. Quotations abound, many from poets who found inspiration by this great river, but their organisation and too often their content leaves much to be desired. Ideas float past, sometimes on the tide, only to reappear a few pages on, going the other way. Sure enough they will be back again before the end. Dates come and go in similar fashion, often back and forth within a paragraph. No wonder the tidal river is murky, given that so many metaphors flow through it simultaneously.
And then there are the rough edges, the apparently unfinished saw cuts that were left in the rush to get the text to press. We learn early on that water can flow uphill. Young eels come in at two inches, a length the text tells us is the same as 25mm. We have an estuary described as 250 miles square, but only 30 miles long. We have brackish water, apparently salt water mixed with fresh in either equal or unequal quantities. Even a writer as skilful as Peter Ackroyd can get stuck in mud like this.
At the end, as if we had not already tired of a procession of facts only barely linked by narrative, we have an `Alternative Typology' where the bits that could not be cut and pasted into the text are presented wholly uncooked - not even prepared.
Thames: The Biography was something of a disappointment. It is packed with wonderful material and overall is worth the lengthy journey but, like the river itself, it goes on. The book has the feel of a work in progress. This may be no bad thing, since the river is probably much the same.
on 9 February 2008
This is an interesting and eclectic look at the River Thames by the author of 'London: The Biography'. The meat of the book is a series of vignettes dealing with different aspects of the river, its people, and it's environs. Also included is what the author titles 'An Alternative Topography, from source to sea' which is fascinating in its own right. This is really a book to dip into, rather than to read from end to end, and in some places it gets a little too mystical for my taste. It has it's own fascination, though, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it - especially to read in bed before you go to sleep.
on 12 September 2007
Twenty years ago I tired of London, but not of life. Ackroyd's tribute to this river creeping through it fails to tempt me back. The dense flowery language and metaphysical ponderings are more off-putting that its broad, flat surface. The book is crammed with facts, anecdotes, speculation, lists, the period from prehistory to the present, the geography from sea to source. The information fascinates, some is incorrect. The author will not slow down, check, edit, producing books at a rapid rate of knots and, no getting away from it, acquiring a formidable reputation in the process which no doubt deters reviewers here.
But good writing marries structure to content, and thematic chapters are unsuited to this subject, forcing readers to dabble in pools - not the first feature of the Thames to spring to mind. Peopled from Caesar to Shelley to Jack the Ripper, Pepys to Hogarth to Morris, it ranges among boatmen and industrial workers, from flooding, malaria among estuary marsh-dwellers, to sewage. A house of easement once provided 128 seats and, unsuprisingly, foul sludge floated 6 inches deep. There is too much to do justice too. Many Londoners will love it for that alone.
My problem is in seeing the waterway as a fanciful symbol of eternity and metaphor for all things, including 'art and history and poetry'. Questions rise unbidden while reading. Given the magnitude of that metaphor, why so little reference to literature, art, poetry, film? Does Ackroyd really mean to present the Virgin Mary as 'the most powerful' water goddess? News to me. Though it's worth the bookshelf space as a reference book, I've missed the boat on this one. Not to worry. Laughter caught it and is speeding all the way to the bank.