Monday, August 02, 2010

Peter Ackroyd - Thames, Sacred River

The number of books available on the Thames is immense - the bibliography of Peter Ackroyd's book contains at least 300. But it's worth digging out this one, because it's very different from most other books on the river. It's more than simply history, though there is a great deal of history within, it's more than a travel guide, though their is an entertaining final section which takes you from source to sea, explaining the names of places on the shores and many anecdotes;

"Buscot... is famous principally for having a church with no aisle.... The area was once well known for its brandy distilled from beetroot. The beverage was not popular."

But what is really different about Ackroyd's book is his style. In the chapter on "words of the river" he comments that "There seems to be a tendency, in the writers of prose, to break into verse in the course of the narratives - as if the river itself elicited a less than prosaic response". This is just as true of Ackroyd himself; some of his chapters having elements that are poetic in their style. The chapter on the vessels that have existed on the Thames, opens by listing some 30 or so types of boat, but its not a simple list, there is poetry in this pedant's paragraph;

"There have been wherries and clinkers, hoys and onkers, houseboats and skiffs, yachts and motor-boats, tilt-boats and shallops..."

The history of the Thames is no less poetic. From the votive offerings thrown into the water near to crossing points and bridges. To the historic burial mounds and earthworks that line the shores. People have relied on the Thames for water, for transport and trade for hundreds of centuries. Many have left their mark, and the Thames has made it's mark on them.

There are darker moments - the suicides and accidents, the poverty that marked the London shorelines for instance. And Ackroyd is selective in his history - despite the importance of the docks in shaping London and the Thames, there is nothing here of the great class battles that took place around them - the Dock Strikes of the 1880s that helped to shape a new Trade Unionism for the 20th Century.

Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy here in this casual history. Occasionally Ackroyd's style gets in the way of substance and his desire to find evidence of some inherent fascination with the Thames water stretches things too much, this little paragraph for instance;

"In 1756 Stephen Duck, a country poet who became a target of ridicule, flung himself into the Thames behind the Black Inn at Reading; perhaps his surname had drawn him towards the river."

But this aside, Ackroyd has written a lovely book that deserves to be read for its entertaining look at one of the most important rivers in the world.

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