Re­turn of the nymphs, faeries and sprites

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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