Skyring's Reviews > Thames: The Biography

Thames by Peter Ackroyd
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's review
Jul 29, 2011

really liked it
Read in July, 2011

Thames: The Biography
by Peter Ackroyd

I ducked into a bookshop in Kings Cross Underground to get Peter Ackroyd's marvellous book London: The Biography. I was there to check out every square on the British Monopoly board and I wanted to get my research right.

The book was a superb resource. I buried my nose into it and didn't come up for a long while. Perhaps the highlight was reading about London Stone and then seeing the actual relic of the ancient city right there on Cannon Street.

So when I recently found a companion book on the Thames in the bargain barrow at Paperchain in Manuka, I couldn't get my money out fast enough.

My hostel, just down from St Pauls, was only a short walk from the river, and I have walked along it, and over the Millennium Footbridge scores of times, each time pausing to lean over and watch the slow water. If ever there is a sacred river in the English-speaking world, this is it. The bridges, the cityscapes, the legends, the images - they all flow together to form the natural counterpoint to the city itself.

Peter Ackroyd doesn't disappoint. In fact he soars above my expectations. It would have been so easy to trace the path of the river down to the sea, talking of the history and the places at each stage, but he follows a different course. Each chapter is themed: trade, wildlife, bridges, weather, death, music, literature, religion and a dozen more.

We see the river as a whole being twenty times over in a new light. And each time it is a different river, never the same twice, every set of eyes and every heart focussed on a new view.

I love this approach, independent of time and place, the river has its own stories and its own way of telling them. Happenstance and artifice are blended by Ackroyd, skipping around like light on the ripples of the running river.

Pictures a plenty, along with maps, but this is no guidebook for a trip from A to B. This is something to dip into almost at random, to emerge refreshed or appalled as the case may be.

Sometimes the river was dead with filth and pollution, sometimes seething with life. It's all here, along with the curious places and people of the water and waterside.

Next visit to London, I might venture a little further up and down the great river. In the meantime, I've got enough to keep my appetite stoked right here.

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