Places Too Big for The Usual Rules of Biography
How does one describe the River Thames? In a few words or phrases or a neat timeline to summarize the people who settled nearby? Hardly; it’s far too ancient and complex for that. Peter Ackroyd’s Thames: The Biography devotes almost 500 pages to a subject he clearly adores. It seduces the reader like a novel, despite its trailing illustrations, bibliography, and index. Like its subject, it’s too big to be confined by the usual rules.
Topics include: The Mirror of History, Father Thames, Issuing Forth, Beginnings, The Sacred River, Elemental and Equal, The Working River, The River of Trade, The Natural River, A Stream of Pleasure, The Healing Spring, The River of Art, Shadows and Depths, The River of Death, and The River’s End.
From these topics pour detail after detail, anecdote after anecdote, all of them ordered by subject, not by year.
For example, the great East India docks were built in 1790 over a drowned forest. (Now, there’s an image!) Salmon tasted marvelous from the Thames in 1746, yet by the 1950s there were no fish throughout a 48-mile stretch of the Thames. They returned by the 21st century, together with the largest spawning ground for sole in England. These visions of fish splashing through the water compete with accounts of Victorian boating holidays for humans – ah, the rigid dress code! – and medieval river pageants.
People strut and slink their way the book’s pages. Watermen were honored in the 17th century but hunt for recognition in the 19th. Riverside dwellers cast offerings into the river’s waters: Bronze and Iron Age weapons, deliberately mutilated statues of pagan gods, and pilgrim’s badges. And, of course, the poets who celebrated the Thames: Spenser, Gower, Chaucer, More, Milton, Pope, Blake, Dunbar, Denham, Herrick, and more.
Every time I pick up Thames: The Biography, I find something new to ponder. The native dialect of the Thames River Valley, for example, that Alfred the Great spoke may be the foundation of today’s English. Pubs, waterworks, and chapels were all traditionally associated with bridges. The oldest Thames bridge still in existence today dates to 1250 – and still looks gorgeous.
Ackroyd's Thames: The Biography is a book that makes the Thames River come alive, across all the ages that the river has flowed to the sea. Yet even though Peter Ackroyd has made those waters incredibly vivid to me – and his notes have inspired me to research them further – I’d still like to visit some of the sights he describes. Perhaps the riverside gardens that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I’s aristocrats loved or the 1715 Frost Fair when the Thames froze over and all London came out to celebrate the marvel.
What books which bring an era or place vividly alive to you?