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Caught in swirling eddies of ‘Thames’

Rutten is a Times staff writer.

Now in his 60th year, Peter Ackroyd is one of those forces of literary nature that British letters regularly seems to throw up -- 14 novels, five works of nonfiction, 10 biographies (some of them very fine), two collections of poetry and two of criticism, a play, television scripts and even a clutch of children’s books. He’s also been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and achieved sufficient popular success within his own country to command very handsome advances -- for which he has been resented.

All in all, he’s a very English writer not simply by experience but also by temperament. Once, asked by an interviewer whether he’d come away from a biographical project liking his subject, Ackroyd replied, “That is not really a question I can answer. I try and understand him, thus making him live again for the reader. But it is as if you were asking me if I like one of the characters in my novels. You neither like nor dislike them. You have to bring them alive. That is all.”

London is the great exception, because Ackroyd long has been deeply in love with the city of his birth. Twenty years ago, he mused that “London has always provided the landscape for my imagination . . . and, I suppose, becomes a character -- a living being -- within each of my books. . . . All of my books, biography and fiction alike, are single chapters in the book which will only be completed at the time of my death. Then I hope the city itself will be seen as a metaphor for the nature of time and the presence of the past in human affairs.” In 2000, Ackroyd took the plunge and declared his affection more explicitly with his sprawling (and bestselling) “London: The Biography.” As we know, however, a river runs through it and thus this new book, “Thames: The Biography,” which, along with “Albion: Origins of the English Imagination,” rounds out a triptych of what the author calls “historical sociologies” exploring the spiritual and aesthetic connections in the English sense of place.

Clearly, the author considers the Thames as much more than a river that rises in Gloucestershire and meanders poetically through countryside and capital, then on to Dickens’ storied mud flats and the North Sea. In fact, something crucial about Ackroyd’s approach to “Thames” can be divined from the British edition’s subtitle, “Sacred River,” rather than “The Biography,” which the American version bears. The Celts and, perhaps, the indigenous Britons who preceded them, regarded bodies of water -- and particularly rivers -- as sacred. (Anyone who’s ever been to the British Museum will recall the metal artifacts fished from the Thames around Battersea and apparently tossed in as sacrifices to a river deity.)

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The Romans, who built the first town where London now stands, also granted sanctity to running water, particularly at crossings. Great accommodators of folk piety that they were, early Medieval clerics fairly lined the Thames with holy wells and sacred sites.

Ackroyd makes much of this, as he does of the fact that, “with the exception of Kent,” “Thames” is “the most ancient name recorded in England.” It may derive from the Celtic words “tam,” meaning “smooth or wide-spreading,” and “isa” or “esa,” which stem from a root meaning “running water.” Or, since “Thames” may share a common root with the Sanskrit “tamasa,” or “dark,” both may share a common origin in the proto-Indo European tongue of Europe’s first settlers. “The syllable teme may indeed indicate darkness, in the sense of holy or sacred fearfulness. It may be very ancient indeed, going back to the first naming of the world. It is a matter of interest, then, that in the 19th and early 20th centuries the Thames was often described as the ‘dark river’ in unwitting echo of its first description.”

Unwitting seems right, as it seems just as plausible that the Victorians and Edwardians were describing a water course rank with silt and industrial pollution. If the strain toward spiritual significance fairly creaks through Ackroyd’s portentous etymology, consider the assertion that none of the Earth’s other rivers have “arrested the attention of the world in the manner of the Thames.”

Really?

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Whose attention and in which part of the world? There was a great urban civilization on the banks of the Yangtze when Britons still were wearing blue face paint. From the rise of Sumer to the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate, a great deal of considerable cultural consequence occurred between the Tigris and Euphrates. When those Sanskrit-speaking Aryans pushed south into the Indus Valley, the great urban centers at Mohenjo-daro already were ruins. Then there’s the Nile, beside which . . . well, you get the point, so we don’t have to mention the Mississippi or the Ganges. Even in England’s European neighbors, the Seine, Rhine, Danube, Tiber and Volga might lay a fairly serious claim to historicity -- simply not one as widely noted in English literature.

Ackroyd is too sophisticated and knowledgeable a writer to fall into the “What do they know of England / Who only England know” camp (it’s genuinely frightening how often Kipling comes to mind these days), so it’s pretty clear “Thames” is the product of obsession, as well as affection. Readers will be forewarned that a satisfactory passage of this more-than-500-page torrent of data, description and allusion may require public television-level Anglophilia.

In part, the book’s 15 sections and 44 chapters probably could be read in any order without significant loss of comprehension. “London: The Biography” had a similar wandering structure, but it mirrored the sprawling, wonderfully illogical structure of that great layered metropolis itself. If ever there was a civic monument to the beauty of John Ruskin’s “changeful” architecture, it’s London. A river, however, rises in one place and ends in another -- even a partially tidal artery, like the Thames, a large part of which rises and falls with the sea. A river needs its story told in just that fashion; it may loop extravagantly through the landscape, but you’ve got to proceed upstream or down. “Thames” seems to want to do both at once.

That said, Ackroyd is erudite and engaging, and individual chapters are a joy to dip in and out of. His command of primary sources and the vast literature connected to the Thames is impressive. Even there, though, he tends to strain for a spiritual significance -- often through literary allusion -- that the force of the material itself simply doesn’t require. For example, a chapter titled “River of Death” explores the Thames’ attraction to those contemplating suicide. The blackness and turbulence of the waters, Ackroyd speculates, exert a special pull on those bent on taking their lives. He provides numerous 18th and, particularly, 19th century examples -- from badly received poets to despondent footmen -- right down to their shouted farewells. Then, suddenly, this: “The paradigmatic death of Ophelia has emphasized the poetical nature of suicide by drowning, and those who rush to their deaths in the Thames seem to have been in part guided by tradition.”

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Really?

One would have thought they were prodded by a common experience of unbearable despair. Lacking so elevated a literary association, why, one wonders, do people throw themselves from the Golden Gate Bridge? Or, for that matter, into the Zambezi, the Amazon, the Mekong, the Vistula, the Hudson. . . .

--

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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