Saturday, November 15, 2008

A walk along the banks of history

The writer of London: The Biography has added another chapter to his prodigious output with Thames. This, in some ways, completes the picture Peter Ackroyd set out to create of the city of his birth and continuous fascination. If London was a meticulous study of land, Thames is its twin, a groundbreaking portrait of the waters that run beneath.

Much shorter than the other great rivers of the world, such as the Nile and the Danube, the Thames, at just over 250 miles from source to sea, is nevertheless one of the most written about and painted rivers in the world. Over a period of six months, Ackroyd reserved his weekends to walk by the river, starting from its source near Cirencester in Gloucestershire right up to the estuary, where the river meets the waters of the North Sea.

The most fascinating thing about the Thames, in Ackroyd's view, is the varied nature of civilization that has existed on its shores for thousands of years. Whether it is the quiet of country, memorialized in the pastoral idyll of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, or the filth-ridden repository of Victorian London's dark secrets, as brought out by Dickens, the Thames is the confluence of diverse cultures.

In England, Thames was released last year with the curious subtitle Sacred River. To Londoners who are wont to see it as a functional river, with a mercenary — even seedy — past, the subtitle was strange, if not outright shocking. Ackroyd challenges this view, saying the river has been an object of worship since time immemorial. During the Tudor period, it was a site of elaborate rituals; monasteries and abbeys on its banks point to a rich heritage of religious life.

There is an interesting YouTube video of Ackroyd promoting his book as he boats down the river. If you are still unsure of buying it, viewing the video (search YouTube for "Peter Ackroyd Thames") and hearing Ackroyd's stentorian voice will induce you to rush to the nearest bookstore.


This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

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