Tapping Hidden Undercurrents

Ackroyd's new book 'sets the Thames on fire,' by providing a detailed account of the historical highs and lows of the river that embodies the might and essence of England.

"The Thames: Sacred River" by Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, 490 pages, $37

The German air attacks on England during the Blitz, which lasted from 1940 to 1941, paralyzed and destroyed the London port, until then one of the world's busiest centers of maritime trade and activity, symbol of the empire on which the sun never set. Peter Ackroyd, to whom every detail of his beloved city's life and past is both familiar and poignant, sees the port's destruction and collapse as a sign of what happened to Britain as a whole.

The river that runs through London is the symbol and essence of Britain itself. What happened to the river also happened to the country. The German bombers used the Thames' winding, silvery path to locate their targets, and so the source of life, the river that had nourished English existence, provided England with its livelihood and made it an empire - this same river helped its enemies to attack and harm it. Do the rebuilding and revival of areas that used to hold the old docks and warehouses attest to the revival of England, to the beginning of its new life?

The cover of "The Thames: Sacred River" presents the book as a complement to historian Peter Ackroyd's previous and very exciting work, "London: The Biography" (2000). One of the founders of the so-called "British school" of biography, Ackroyd has demonstrated in his books, and especially in his momentous work on Dickens, that he is able to lead this old and prestigious branch of writing into new terrain.

Like his colleagues, Ackroyd is not afraid to break boundaries and defy conventions; he is especially fearless when it comes to exposing the "involvement" of the biographer in the life-story he is writing. His London is a living, vibrant creature, with its own "life" and "character"; and just as the biographer uncovers the residue of the past in the life of his subject, so Ackroyd seeks to identify in modern-day London the traces left by its illustrious past, its inhabitants and its conquerors throughout the course of history.

Moving poetry

In one of the book's chapters, Ackroyd declares with amazement that anyone who ever described the Thames, even those who meant only to convey cold, dry facts about the river, its waters and its route, eventually abandoned the arid prose and leaned toward moving poetry. And this is exactly what happens to the river's latest documenter, Ackroyd himself.

He begins with a description of the Thames: its length, the amount of water that passes through it, its many curves, the cities and villages on its banks and the tributaries flowing into it. Soon, however, his writing taps hidden undercurrents: the Thames' dark, secret waters and mysteries. It is not the biggest or most tempestuous river on earth, and yet to Ackroyd it is the most interesting and multilayered - a conclusion that many others will also agree with.

The great admirer of the Thames knows that a modern-day stroll along the banks of this not-very-long river (346 kilometers) will hardly reveal the layers of mystery, beauty and darkness the book describes. Ackroyd claims that up until a century ago, as the great authors of the time (such as H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad) could testify, the Thames did not conceal the signs of the past. It was already an important port, crossed by many bridges and even traversed from beneath by an underground railway, and yet the secrets of history were still discernible in it.

The Thames, Ackroyd writes, has never ceased to be engaged in a dialogue with the past, whether the author's own or the past of those who inhabit the river's banks. The book conveys the impression that the river itself sometimes initiates the conversation, as though fearful of the oblivion to which modernity seeks to condemn it. All you need to do is look, the author tells his readers, and the connections can be pointed out. Those willing to accompany him on this journey along the river's depths, from its origins to the sea, are rewarded with a generous helping of stories and surprising details.

Is it any coincidence, Ackroyd asks in one of the book's more horrifying chapters, that the Thames has a fondness for chopped-off heads? Was it by chance that the head of the Emperor Hadrian, detached from the rest of his statue, washed out of the river and was discovered during the construction work on a new bridge between the two banks? This was the custom of the ancient tribes, and of the Saxons, and of the Roman conquerors, and of those who abandoned paganism and embraced Christianity. To this day, Ackroyd recounts, killers have a tendency to toss decapitated corpses into the river. What began as an act of pagan worship has changed shape and meaning over the years. What has endured, meanwhile, is the sanctity that has been attributed to the river throughout time.

The range of issues and subjects is immense: The book's different chapters address the bridges over the river; its flora and thriving fauna; the seamen who have made their living off of it; the connection between the south and north banks; the color of the river and its smell - in short, all those topics relating to every river in the world.

And so, for example, in the chapter on accidents on the Thames, Ackroyd tells us that the worst accident in the history of this naval route took place on September 3, 1878. Not far from London, poor visibility caused a large freight ship laden with coal to collide with a ferry bearing some 1,000 passengers. The ferry sunk within four minutes, and despite rescue efforts some 700 passengers perished. Another 180 were considered missing; a handful survived, and 18 of them died in the following days. And indeed, the local papers, outraged by the scope of the tragedy, told their readers that faster, more efficient rescue efforts might have saved many more lives. Most of the victims ultimately died of poisoning; thus, when Ackroyd describes the pollution and the amount of filth dumped into the river in the late 19th century, it becomes easy to understand the claims of the newspaper critics at the time.

As though wishing to enhance the mystery and wonder, he adds that one of the collision's survivors, a woman, would go on to become the alleged third victim of Jack the Ripper. After her husband and three children died in the Thames collision, her life took a turn for the worse; she ended up a prostitute and was easy prey for the mysterious psychopath. In another chapter, Ackroyd recounts that while the Ripper was at the peak of his activity, Londoners attributed to him the many mutilated bodies that washed up from the river. Here is a chilling deduction: The sacred, the mysterious and the criminal are all intertwined.

It is hard to dispute Ackroyd's claim that Britain's rulers have always sought to assert their authority by displaying their ownership of and control over the river, which more than any other element has embodied the might and essence of England. The Thames became the national river, representative of a fundamental "Englishness." On July 17, 1717, as Ackroyd recounts, a procession of luxury vessels made its way along the Thames. King George I of Hanover, not an Englishman by birth, sailed with great pomp and ceremony from Chelsea to Lambeth. Alongside the royal ship sailed a vessel of musicians, to provide the king with pleasant entertainment on his outing. The orchestra played "Water Music," a special piece composed for the occasion by George Frideric Handel; the king found it so agreeable that he asked for it to be played three times in a row.

Some mocking and ill-meaning voices, however, said the king had ordered the musicians to play because he wanted to drown out the voices of the sailors and stevedores along the river. Ackroyd has his own explanation: The Hanoverian monarch, he claims, could not think of a better way to show his Englishness and strong ties to the country of which he had just been made king than to take a royal sail on the river.

The river 'speaks'

Especially noteworthy for their charm are the chapters on artists who lived nearby the river and spent their lives painting it or describing it in their prose. Thus, for example, Ackroyd discusses the wondrous paintings of the great Romantic artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), of whom art critic and philosopher John Ruskin said that he understood the language of the Thames. Peter Ackroyd adopts this definition, both because he is convinced that the river indeed "speaks" to those who observe and love it and because he believes its language to be unique and lucid.

Drawing evidence from every finding and detail, Ackroyd comments that a journey along those parts of the river painted by Turner more than 150 years ago reveals that the vegetation was thinner then than it is today. Ackroyd has little patience for environmentalists and their repeated claims that modernity is destroying England, its landscapes and its sacred river. By the way, the water of the Thames is cleaner today than it ever has been, and it is no coincidence that various species of fish, which were recorded by ancients as living in the river and later disappeared, are now inhabiting it again, to the delight of nature buffs.

Ackroyd's discussion of the Thames' literary reflections is especially fascinating and charming. Poets of every generation have celebrated the Thames and marveled at its secrets. Some, like Alexander Pope or Percy Shelley, helped cement the river's position within the nation's history and culture. Without a doubt, however, outside of Britain, the magic of the river has been primarily imprinted on readers' minds by three modern works, to which Ackroyd devotes a special discussion: Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" and Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men in a Boat." He identifies the places that inspired these books, but especially points to their own underground currents and narratives of the deep. These wonderful books, often considered appropriate reading fare for the young (especially "Three Men in a Boat," the most lightweight and amusing of them), contain hidden passageways, meditations on the human soul and an unending dialogue between past and present. Such is "the Thames, sacred river."

The book's final chapter offers an "alternative topography" of the Thames and is a kind of guided tour of sites, villages and cities along the river, from its origins to where it enters the sea. Beyond trying to explain the sources of various names and concepts, Ackroyd embarks on another, wondrous journey that reveals beneath the modern bridges and large new structures the efforts of previous generations to talk to those who would come after them.

Eli Shaltiel is a historian and editor of Am Oved's Ofakim nonfiction series.