Return of the nymphs, faeries and sprites
SWEET Thames, run softly, till I end my song.’’ So wrote T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land, lifting a line from Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion. But whereas Spenser’s thrilled refrain conveyed his deep affection for the Thames, Eliot employed it ironically to register a spiritual deficit. Thus, Part III of the poem begins: The river’s tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed. If Eliot’s Thames is short on nymphs, the same certainly cannot be said for the Thames of Eliot’s erstwhile biographer, the impossibly prolific Peter Ackroyd. Here, to be sure, are nymphs aplenty. And not only nymphs but faeries, sprites and all manner of ancient riverine deities, from the mythological goddess Isis to the river god worshipped by Rat and Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (‘‘ here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him’’).
For Ackroyd, the Thames is a sacred river, a ‘‘ tremulous deity’’, a baptismal force. It is the river less of Joseph Mallord William Turner and James Abbott McNeill Whistler than of British artist Stanley Spencer, who depicted Christ baptised at Cookham ( a small village on the banks of the Thames), a park bench over John the Baptist’s shoulder.
This book, then, is Ackroyd’s attempt to re- enchant, to re- sanctify the Thames. To this end he has gathered material from folklore, legend, literature and painting and combined it with the more prosaic details of geology, history and natural history to produce a book that is, by turns, inspiring, strange and deeply silly.
As with his popular London: The Biography, the book is arranged thematically, each chapter less a straightforward narrative than an impressionistic meditation on some aspect of the river’s existence. For all that it is a work of scholarship ( and a pretty impressive one at that), it is also a work of imagination. Thus, the mast house at Brunswick Dock is described as ‘‘ the maypole of the commercial deities’’, while the Thames Valley inhabitants’ fondness for song is attributed to Pan, ‘‘ still busy in the reeds’’.
Sometimes this emphasis on sacredness proves a little difficult to sustain. Certainly, the mire and filth of the Thames, ‘‘ a Stygian pool’’, in Disraeli’s words, ‘‘ reeking with ineffable and unbearable horror’’, is hard to square with Ackroyd’s description of the river as a cleansing or baptismal entity. ( The traditional advice to anyone planning to drown themselves in the Thames is as follows: You’d be better off drinking a glass of it.)
Indeed, there are times Ackroyd’s insistence on the sacred nature of the Thames rings bizarre. ‘‘ The bridge itself is now covered with graffiti; among them ‘ Christ is coming’.’’ Even vandalism is revealing of the Lord.
In addition, Ackroyd shows unmistakable signs of metaphorical overreach. The Thames, it seems, can stand for anything: for eternity and inconstancy, purity and adulteration, innocence and experience; it engenders egalitarianism, yet has proven a magnet to power.
Ackroyd also has a weakness for the poetic non sequitur: imaginative leaps and fanciful connections posing as informed speculation. Thus: ‘‘ In the Aboriginal art of Australia . . . the image of concentric circles is an emblem of water or of a waterhole, from which dreamings emerge or into which they enter. The water and the dream are of the same element. That is why, in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat , Sonning is an area of the Thames ‘ in which to dream of bygone days, and vanished forms and faces, and things that might have been’.’’
( I kept wondering what my paternal ancestors — watermen, lightermen, barge builders and lock keepers, many of them intimately connected with the Thames — would have made of passages such as this. The ‘‘ horrid oaths and imprecations’’ favoured by the riverine classes may, perhaps, afford a hint.)
Despite these batty assertions, Thames is often a delight to read. When Ackroyd puts aside his religion and trusts his historical sense, he reminds us that history is its own enchantment. Take the following: The Thames seems to contain the debris of the world, bird cages and urethral syringes, watches and wooden stools, pipes and phials and wig- curlers. German pottery lies above Venetian glass. A flint hand- axe might share the same stretch of riverbed with a 16th- century pot and a 19th- century bicycle wheel. A German bomb may lie beside a miniature horsepistol, and a fragment of Roman statuary beside a blackened relic of the Great Fire. Here is Ackroyd at his best: a historical mudlark with an eye for detail and an ear for the mellifluous phrase. Reading his book, one is seized by the blissful awareness that the Thames will never look the same again. This is the highest function of history: not to make us long for the past but to enchant the present.
Richard King is a literary critic based in Perth.