Saturday, September 5, 2009

Peter Ackroyd's "Thames": Book Review

My great-grandfather was found drowned "in mysterious circumstances" a century ago in this river named for "dark-grey ooze." A Land League agitator from Ireland, he met with Londoners before his demise. This sort of mystery attracted me to Ackroyd's riparian "biography." Equally dismal and dreamy in its descriptions, Ackroyd rambles as he did in his "London" (also reviewed by me), but the effect here alternates between delight and dreariness.

He writes well, often. Crossing London Bridge, he sees it as a songline or dreamline reminding us of Australian aborigines, a synecdoche for the great city. "For a brief passage the vehicles and the people are brought into relation with the push and flow of the sea. The wind and the dust, the noise of the traffic and the cry of the gulls, are brought together." (133) In past London: "It might seem to the observer that life for the majority of riverside people was the sum of a dark house and a dark street but, where a thousand such houses are found together, there can breathe a spirit of adventure and of wonder." (181)

One drop of Thames is drunk by eight people, he somehow estimates, before it flows into the ocean. The width of the river mid-City is about a third of what it once was; nobody has been recorded to have survived a swim in fleeing pursuers across its City stretch, so dark, oozing, and unpredictable its cold depths. Its pastoral sounds make the author wonder if these are all that connect our experience of it with its ancient flow, perhaps 55 million years ago.

Suicides draw towards it as much as holidaymakers. "Tacitus relates that the Saxons, long before they colonised Britain, were prone to drowning their enemies in the river as sacrifices to the god Nerthus." (370) Its stretches contain filth, rot, pollution, and decay as well as regattas, day-trippers, and anglers. In it we see our reflection not so much mirrored as altered into a portrayal part "Wind in the Willows," part "Heart of Darkness."

However, as previous reviewers have noted, the effect as with "London" over hundreds of densely factual, or divergently lyrical passages may be one of languor. "Water is the mistress of flowing language, of language without interruption or surcease." (335) The spell of the river soothes Ackroyd as he labors to catalogue its wonders. Those of us far from its banks may or may not be enchanted by such a mass of information. This will aid historians needing a compendium of all data about the river, but it may, despite and because of Ackroyd's assemblage of detail, daunt casual inquirers. (Posted to Amazon US 9-5-2009)

P.S. I add that Stanley Spencer of Cookham, (link to his gallery here) one of my favorite painters, is featured, albeit far too sparingly for me, in this handsomely illustrated work. But, "Baptism" imagining typically John the B. dunking J.C. amidst swimming-trunked languidly arranged torsos of Jazz Age sunbathers is not the example I'd've chosen. My blog features a detail from his "The Bridge" as its first image; a far better selection.

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