Archive for Thames: Sacred River

Deep River

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on August 16, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve just finished reading a strange but wonderful book entitled Thames: Sacred River written by Peter Ackroyd. On one level it’s a kind of biography of the River Thames, from prehistoric times to the present day, but it’s much more complex and involving than a simple narrative history. What Ackroyd does is to look a the river from many different angles, each time focussing on a different aspect. There are chapters on connections between the Thames and human life- religious observance, art and artists, poetry and literature, commerce and crime and so on – as well as its wildlife, geology and other physical properties. As you can probably imagine, this means that the book jumps backwards and forwards through history, often visiting the same period many times but from a different perspective.

Rather like the river whose progress it charts, this book is both large and meandering.  I have to admit that at times I found it heavy going. Ackroyd’s prose is often magisterial in its beauty, but he does get a bit grandiose every now and then. I got a bit irritated by his persistent use of the word “riverine”, for example. I’ve nothing against the word itself, but he uses it with such regularity that you can predict when the next appearance is due, as if he’d  allowed him a certain number at the outset and determined to spread them uniformly through the text.

Despite all that, what makes this book so wonderful  is that,  for all its majestic sweep, it’s also full of rich and fascinating detail. Surprising little tidbits of information appear on practically every page to illustrate some aspect of the river, some playful and amusing, others dark and disturbing. Ackroyd’s mastery of the little details is really marvellous and it more than compensates for his occasional verbosity. I’d heartily recommend this as a work that can be read all the way through, but is also very rewarding to dip into.

As usual with my little reviews I’m not going to give a systematic description of the book, but just pick something that struck me as a read it to try to convey an impression of the content.  Near the end there’s a chapter about a particularly dark side of the Thames,  namely its association with death by drowning. For a start I was staggered to read that there are approximately 400 suicides each year involving people jumping into the Thames at some point along its length; most, but by no means all, of these happen in London. It’s also striking that this figure appears not to have changed much over the past couple of centuries. The Thames seems to be a magnet for the suicidal. Not long ago, a young French lady travelled all the way to London from Paris, specifically to throw herself in the Thames.

But, of course, not all deaths by drowning are suicides. Over the centuries countless unfortunate people have lost their lives by falling accidentally into the water. The worst peacetime  loss of life in the history of the Thames occurred on September 3rd 1878 when a paddle steamer, the Princess Alice, collided with a collier and sank almost immediately. Many passengers on the Alice died by drowning, but most of those that didn’t drown suffered the perhaps worse fate of being poisoned by the heavily polluted water in the river. Many of those rescued died in the ensuing days and weeks of unknown ailments almost certainly caused the range toxic materials that were routinely dumped in the Thames in thos days. It’s estimated that around 700 people died altogether as a result of the sinking of the Princess Alice.

I knew about this terrible event before reading Ackroyd’s book, as it features prominently in others I read about the East End of London when I  lived there, years ago. However, one particularly unsettling  coincidence  had escaped my attention until now. Apparently, one of the very few survivors of the Princess Alice disaster was a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Stride. She lived another ten years, in fact. But her ultimate fate was to be no happier than the many who died in 1878. On 30th September 1888 she became the third victim of Jack the Ripper….

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