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.”