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Peter Ackroyd, Thames: Sacred River (London: Chatto & Windus, 2007), 512 pp. £25.00 (hbk), ISBN 978-0-701-17284-8

Steven Barfield

Billed as a companion book to his recent London: The Biography, Ackroyd’s new book Thames: Sacred River shares many of the features and perhaps the strengths and weaknesses of the earlier work. Before I begin, however, it is worth noting that the book itself is strikingly presented. The front of the partial dust jacket details old images of life on the river in the shape of a woodcut of one of the once ubiquitous watermen who plied the river (the back has what looks like a witch and her raven familiars surfing along the river’s waves on a wooden plank), while above the jacket, the front of the book presents memorable images of life on the banks of the Thames. However, under the dust jacket images on the book cover itself depict the industrialisation beneath the Thames in the nineteenth century. Even the end papers are carefully designed images of the upper Thames of pastoral tradition. The intent of this device, combined with the allusion to Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ in the title, appears clear: the Thames has had a multiplicity of forms and functions, some more or less hidden than others. When you add this clever book design to the massive discounting of the book on the internet and in bookshops (up to £10.00 off the recommended price) and then figure in its eminent readability, its compendious nature and finally its lavish use of illustrations, it is hard not to see this as an ideal book for a holiday present. Indeed, I bought another copy for my parents almost straight away but then, as is often the case with such presents, gave it to them early.

The complicated cover is indicative of the central thrust of the book: that the Thames is capable of showing both historical change and the continuity of all epochs at the same time (in terms of the lives of those connected with the river). Ackroyd notes that: ‘The Thames contains all times. … The river is the oldest thing in London and it changes not at all’ (p. 14). Like the trope of the Thames in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the river is both historical and perpetually a-historical, real and mythic, imaginary and actual, local (to England) and global in its significance: a river that is all things and more to all people and while it has been remade by humans it is still capable of remaining purely itself. (On such a note, we can only hope that Ackroyd never writes Tony Blair’s biography.) As Ackroyd writes: ‘The Thames can become an emblem both of time and eternity, the Janus-faced aspects of the river like the sculptured heads on Henley Bridge looking both upriver and downriver’ (p. 13). Ackroyd manages to push this trope even further than writers like Eliot or Conrad in Heart of Darkness by focusing on the pre-historic, unknown and in human terms unknowable river and making it much like E. M. Forster’s description of the Ganges in the temple section of A Passage to India. The Ganges is conventionally sacred within Hinduism, while the Thames has not been thought sacred in any meaningful way except by the odd Romantic, I thought, until Ackroyd’s own sacralisation in the book. Ackroyd writes: ‘To be baptised in the river is also to be reborn, to have crossed the threshold into a new life. On the humpbacked bridge at Radcot, the oldest on the Thames, there are the remains of a stone font’ (p. 82). A striking detail but does that constitute proof? But then that is the right of a visionary writer, I suppose, to tell us what we had overlooked before: ‘The Thames itself has always been considered holy, an aspect of the peace that passes all understanding’ (p. 79). Well, certainly some have thought the Thames in its various guises holy (Stanley Spencer for one), but to my mind comparing the Thames to the Ganges is stretching a point about the qualities of rivers in general. Though it is true that some Hindu Diwali lamps are cast on the Thames nowadays, this does not make it the mother of us all, because it does not play the same explicit role in England’s fast-disappearing Christian life.

This view of the river as sacred explains not only Ackroyd’s fondness for entertaining us with the figures of Father Thames and various minor river deities, but also his fondness for geographical and geological descriptions: ‘[t]hose who trust the spirit of place must take account of these geological graduations and alterations’ (p. 33). Such ‘spirits’ merge different periods of history and dissimilar zones of geography. It also explains why the book is not focused as much on London as one might expect: the Thames is more than just London’s river or even England’s for that matter in Ackroyd’s book and overshadows the city that it has produced. At one point he remarks that the Thames may have a Sanskrit derivation linking it to the Ganges (p. 24); I am unconvinced (though who knows with proto-Sanskrit?), but it does explain the writer’s fascination with the distant past. The prehistoric nature of the Thames is critical and Ackroyd is effective at detailing the lives of the Thames’s early Celtic inhabitants and what remains of their barrows and other marks of settlement. In a long chapter on geology he remarks: ‘There is no reason to doubt that human consciousness is changed by the experience of living above clay, rather than above chalk, even though the nature of that change is not understood. … Does it make any difference that the inhabitants of the estuary walk above preserved primeval forests?’ (p. 33). My feeling would generally be that there is both every reason to doubt this first proposition along with the theory of Ley lines and that the answer to the second question is simply a ‘no’. However, Ackroyd carries off this fictionalising and imagination of space and culture with characteristic aplomb.

One problem with Ackroyd’s thematic approach may lie in the book’s construction. Ackroyd does not tell his story chronologically, nor does he follow the route of the river from source to sea, but rather explores its presence, through 45 thematic chapters. Some are only a handful of pages long, others are much longer, and they include such surprising titles as ‘River of Dreams’ or ‘The Ancient Trees’. As Ackroyd ducks and weaves so enjoyably around the space and history of the Thames, exploiting multiple cross-references and juxtaposing geographical and historical material in unusual combinations (as is a typical feature in most of his factual books), there is a tendency to elude the Thames as a material and physical presence. Yet, if you have rowed on it (as I did for six winters), or been mud-larking on the banks, or witnessed a flood, then it is this very physical aspect that is more memorable than the transcendental nature that Ackroyd evokes. In a similar fashion Ackroyd’s love of etymological derivations and desire to project his ‘sacred’ river back into the distant, prehistoric past leads to an inevitable lack of focus on the role the Thames plays in commercial and political relationships between the City and Southwark or the City and Westminster. Ackroyd’s peculiar blend of emotional psycho-geography as a walking divination of a spirit concealed within place is eminently suitable for his themes and visionary preoccupations here, but it does make Thames, like its immediate predecessor London: The Biography, a work of faction rather than straightforward history. For students who need a history of the Thames, or an account of how it functioned in terms of cultural representation there are better and more reliable sources, though as with Ackroyd’s London, students will not thank you for depriving them of this more exciting, if less exacting, blend of fact and fiction. In that respect, the book concludes with a suitably eccentric yet fascinating alternative topography of the river, an example of Ackroyd’s cultural mud-larking at its best and almost like a novella within the main book.

Psycho-geography also leaves some people cold, and I must admit it raises some of my Modernist hackles when practiced by its two main proponents, Ackroyd and Ian Sinclair. But while Sinclair tends to miniaturism and neo-subaltern eccentricity (for example his recent collection London: City of Disappearances would have been far more accurately (if clumsily) titled, London: City of White Jewish East End Disappearances), Ackroyd is a man of the very big picture. In Thames Ackroyd matches his tireless descriptive energies to an equally large subject, one whose tendency to overflow and burst the banks of those who would tame it is somewhat reminiscent of Ackroyd’s own overflowing style and epoch-bridging sentences. Perhaps some of these differences between Ackroyd’s and Sinclair’s ambitions and styles stem from their respective biographies. While Ackroyd grew up as a working-class Londoner born in a council house in Acton, West London, Sinclair grew up in Wales and came to London as a migrant. Ackroyd, like many Londoners therefore, seems both always overwhelmed by the city yet nonetheless always at home in its endless transformations, while Sinclair seems more drawn to its marginal, more temporary dwellers and has a keener sense of those whose identities are erased by London. Like most born and bred Londoners, Ackroyd seems to have imbibed the common view that the Thames is both an intimate companion of London and at the same time the major avenue of London’s communication with what is outside itself in history and space, which in a sense is the dual preoccupation of the book.

If you aren’t convinced by Ackroyd’s Hegelian drive to make the Thames the transcendence of all and every contradiction that it embodies within his analysis, there is still no denying the tireless drive and energy of the book and its successful myth revealing and producing ambitions. It is filled with striking and entertaining facts, courtesy of Ackroyd and his indefatigable researchers. Having edited an issue of Literary London on the Thames and read many of the major historical accounts of the river, I was still impressed by the material here and how entertaining it all was. My parents incidentally love the book and have been phoning me up with various memories of the river in West London, suggesting that whatever the faults of the Thames, it produces an overwhelming resonance with the cultural memory of the river.

To Cite This Article:

Steven Barfield, ‘Review: Peter Ackroyd, Thames: Sacred River’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 2 (September 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access]