PunkconformityLife, history, and the pursuit of knitting.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book Review: Thames: A Biography

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I love London.  Some might say I am a little obsessed.  My first project as a research assistant was to help design a course that tied early novels to the geography and social structures of London.  So when Peter Ackroyd uses the city (or in this case, the river Thames) as a backdrop for his wild, outlandish, pet theories, I get a little peeved.

I just finished Thames: The Biography, and as the Boy can attest, it left me spitting mad.  Having read several of Ackroyd's other works, I should have known that this would happen, but every time he sucks me in with the promise of interesting anecdotes about my favorite city, and then disappoints me with bad scholarship and poor argumentation.

His particular bug-a-boo in Thames is the idea that the river has been used for religious rites throughout history, and that the modern incarnations of religious houses, commercial buildings, law-courts, etc, that border the Thames are there due to some sort of primordial understanding of the river as a spiritual medium.

Okay, I'll follow you down that rabbit hole, Peter.  What's your evidence?

1) There are lots of churches dedicated to Mary along the river, so that is proof that the river is connected to some sort of ancient fertility goddess.  Huh.  As opposed to the numerous churches dedicated to Mary that aren't along the river?  Somehow those are just churches, but these are tied to internalized remembrances of our ancestors?

2) Lots of the great early modern English astronomer-philosophers lived along the river, which suggests that the flow of the river has always inspired people to look to the heavens and investigate the stars. Sure.  Or, you know, it's darker along the river, because it's a place on which humans find it harder to build things.

3) The existence of henges, cursus, barrows, etc, along the Thames (in conjunction with our modern buildings of power) suggests that for thousands of years, "the Thames remained a sacred and highly charged area." (65) Maybe.  But considering that the most famous henge is on a plain 72 miles to the west, maybe it's just that England is an island, and after multiple thousands of years of human habitation things start to pile up.

He also makes the statement that "London Bridge is Falling Down" was a nursery rhyme dating to the 11th century, when Aethelred the Unready's Viking ally, Olaf, pulled the bridge down with his boats.  The 11th century destruction of the bridge is a highly contested "fact" that is attested only in skaldic verse (which, due to embellishment and generic tropes, has more in common with fiction than with history), and most folklorists agree that the rhyme dates from the 17th century (though it builds on medieval children's games).  So it is extremely problematic that Ackroyd chooses to state these things as absolute fact, with no qualification and no sourcing.

The fact that he includes these unsubstantiated "facts" and makes such poorly substantiated but somewhat titillating arguments suggests to me that he is not confident enough in the significance of his subject matter. He's afraid no one will really care about the Thames qua Thames, that the river only matters to moderns in some larger, Ancient Aliens kind of way, as a gateway to our past beliefs.  He clearly thinks that no matter how tenuous his argument in support of this bosh, it will still be more engaging than an actual history of the Thames.  And that is what makes me the most angry.  The river doesn't need Ackroyd's pet theories to make it more interesting; between 17th century frost fairs, mudlarks, London Bridge actually falling down, Battersea power station, Jerome K Jerome (to say nothing of the dog), the disappearance of the Fleet, Ceasar's incursions into Britain, and all the other amazing things that the river has produced/experienced, why would you ever feel the need to embellish it with bad history and even worse argumentation?

So save yourself the frustration and gnashing of teeth I experienced.  If you're interested in the history of the river and its human inhabitants as they were and are, and not as someone with an obvious ideological agenda wants them to be, read something by a different author.

1 comment

August 23, 2013 at 2:54 PM

As I'm the one who got you this book as a Christmas present, I'm sorry it made you angry, but you rant so eloquently that you gave me a gift back in the reading of your review!

Perhaps YOU could write the real one for the Thames?