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The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys
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's review
Feb 06, 2010

it was amazing

Bound Miami SunPost January 28, 2010 (p17)

If the River was History

Navigating The Thames

John Hood

Okay, the Nile might lead us back to Ancient Egypt, the Yangtze might flow for the future, and the Mississippi will always have Huck and Jim. But of all the world’s great rivers, none has perhaps played as important part in all world events as the River Thames. Forget the fact that it’s only 215 miles long (and not even the longest river in the United Kingdom). Because what’s coursed down this slow and steady stream is nothing short of the course of history.

If you have any doubts, reading Peter Ackroyd’s Thames: The Biography (Anchor $20) will immediately dispel them. Ackroyd, who’s probably most famous for his biography of London, also has to his credit bios of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickens and Eliot, so he’s an old hand at spinning the essence of a life. Here he goes one further, and shows how the Thames is responsible for life itself.

The Thames, of course, is central to London. “It brought its trade,” writes Ackroyd, “and in so doing lent beauty, squalor, wealth and dignity to the city.” In fact, he continues, “London could never have existed without the Thames.” Naturally, its history is also central to England, or, “the Britons and the Romans, the Saxons and the Danes and the Normans and the other migrating groups who decided to settle somewhere along its banks.”

And there’s where the whole wild world comes in. Forget the past 12,000 years – which is the “unbroken process of occupation and settlement in the Thames Valley” – because humankind has been along this river for half a million years. That’s when “the denizens of the Old Stone Age or Paleolithic era” set up encampments along the banks. And though these beings remain a ‘people without history,’ the fact that their existence “covers the longest period of human survival in the history of the world” surely must count for something.

But if you’re like me, you like things a little more modern – or at least with some kinda name recognition. And here Ackroyd gets going grandly. From Julius Caesar’s second invasion in 54 BC to Sir Walter Raleigh’s Tower of London jail cell writing of The History of the World in 1610. There’s Virgina Woolf and “The Docks of London” (1931); there’s Longfellow and Tennyson and the fourth Duke of Queensbury. And there are the swans, which once swam by the thousands, and have been immortalized by Milton and Wordsworth, Browning and Keats, among others.

And of that history? Well aside from the legions of marauders that have used the Thames to make their play for Britain, there’s Britain’s influence on the world. In Daniel Defoe’s days, for instance (early 18th century), two thousand vessels could be found on the Thames on any one day. And it’s a bet that those vessels brought with them the makings of a British Empire. But even “by the twelfth century,” writes Ackroyd,” it was already an ancient port.” And it trafficked in goods from Norway and Russia to Babylon and Scythia.

There were occasions, however (40 to be exact), when no boats sailed on the Thames, because the river was solid ice. And recounting those occasions is Helen Humphreys in a wondrous little book entitled, simply, The Frozen Thames (Delacorte $22). Now for anyone who might think that a river’s freezing doesn’t really rank on the list of things worth writing about, let me assure you that Humphreys obliterates that notion in one fell swoop.

Make that forty swoops, of poetic grace and sheer beauty. That the vignettes here tend to concern themselves with preventing King William’s window tax, a headless Charles I, Queen Matilda attempting to flee, and lovers meeting out on the ice during the plague years, (among other sundries) only makes the work that much more graceful and beautiful. These were the proverbial times that tried a person’s soul, and here they’re exquisitely rendered.

It’s not every day I devote myself to a river; nor should it be. But to come across not one but two books that so devotedly cover the course of a certain sweep of water is to come across the river itself. And if I can walk on water, even for a day, well, hell, why wouldn’t I?

Wouldn’t you?


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