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Book Review: Thames: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

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Peter Ackroyd is a remarkably skilled writer of complex biographies, with the ability to create order out of an enormous subject, to tell a story, and to teach in a most entertaining fashion.

His primary interest is in London. He wrote London: The Biography, and has a stunning portfolio of biographies of great literary figures. In the last two decades his works include biographies of Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Chaucer and Shakespeare.

In Thames: The Biography, Ackroyd's subject is water. That a body of water could be so rich in history is astonishing, and he writes at a pace that keeps readers engaged.

Organized by elements of the river’s life and meaning, from its history to its working life, growing along with the story, we’re introduced to the river's attributes. They provide pleasure, healing and art, as Ackroyd leads us along its 215 miles to the natural end, where the Thames meets the North Sea.

As a testament to Ackroyd’s lovely writing, you can actually read Thames: The Biography as if you’re on a boat trip down the river, like taking a vacation back in time, through history. Slowly, as a reader, you come to realize the reality of this river; that people depend on it and have for centuries. People live, work, and thrive on the Thames' natural assets.

Ackroyd calls the Thames “a work in slow progress,” taking the same course for ten thousand years, varied without being spectacular, with the paraphernalia of ancient and modern clustering around its banks.

The nature of the Thames is reflected as it advances toward London: “It has reflected the moving pageant of the ages. Art and civilization have flourished alongside it. Each generation has a different understanding of it, so that it has accumulated meaning over the centuries.” It is why you will so enjoy reading this book. Ackroyd draws out the meaning in each function of the river, for each generation.

His detailed account of history, fact, and folklore are shared as though in conversation with the reader. The author conveys reverence for the river’s composition and a unique poetic expression of its body, form, and place in time. For some, it involves the past, while for other it conjures images of their destiny.

River churches, Ackroyd notes, have always been a favorite for weddings. “To be baptized in the river is also to be reborn, to have crossed the threshold into a new life.”

Development along the river includes palaces, castles and fortresses built over time, including Westminster Abbey and the imposing Tower of London, built as evidence of the King’s strength.

Literary historians will enjoy revisiting the works of Kipling after reading Chapter 19, “The Bridges of Contentment and the Tunnels of Darkness.” We learn how close Kipling’s prose was to the truth of the Thames, in the massive bridge-building efforts, dating back as far as the Bronze Age.

The Thames was used a refuge in the plague of 1665, and scene of pageants, coronations and pleasure for centuries, with festivals celebrated on the water and its banks. The river and its banks were home to rich and poor, as is London today.

Ackroyd researched every function of the river, every period of history, with clarity and empathy. Thames: The Biography is an extraordinary portrayal of the nature, power and beauty of a river that would never be tamed. His book includes over 40 interesting photos, some in black & white, many in color.

I might call the Thames the “River of Humanities” after the literary insights in Ackroyd’s book. He includes an entire chapter on “Thames Art,” reminiscent of college classes in the extraordinary landscape work of J.M.W. Turner. The Thames was his subject from the life and labor on the river to the turbulence of its waters. Ackroyd writes of Turner: “The whole world of the river came within his purview. He painted from boats and, while living at Ferry House in Isleworth, he built his own skiff for his Thames excursions.

In Chapter 38, “The Words of the River,” Ackroyd depicts the ravages of time and the value of the river’s landscape, an integral part of English life. Devouring this chapter takes the reader through the great body of Charles Dickens’ work and Joseph Conrad's. Ackroyd says Conrad “understood the darker aspects of the Thames, having worked as a merchant seaman," and saw it through a lens of the river as guardian of secrets, mystery, and untold stories.

Ackroyd’s Thames: The Biography gives us a rich look at this symbol of eternity and human life, in an unending cycle of movement and change.

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