Sunday, October 25, 2015

Thames: The Biography


Rating: 4 Stars


It is strange to be a little in love with a river? Maybe obsessed is a little more accurate, but there is something so lovely and melancholy and of course historic about this stretch of water, easily one of the most famous rivers in the world. Perhaps that is my bias, given my love of that little island where she flows. Ah well.

If you read my review of 'Foundation' by the same author earlier in the week, you can imagine by trepidation with beginning this one. Foundation was so terrible, not at all what I have come to know and enjoy from Peter Ackroyd, so I was nervous that he would somehow have screwed this one up too - though how can you really screw up a biography of A RIVER? Luckily, he did not. It was everything I expected and thought it would be.

Ackroyd offers up a whole slew of information, from the origin of the name 'Thames', through to where the Thames becomes the sea. I found many of the chapters highly informative, though naturally cared less for the information regarding the river in Victorian times and beyond. Not the river's fault of course, but I am just less interested in how the Victorian's used the river, because from then on it is not really new information. But to learn about the Iron Age, Bronze Age, etc settlements? That is something else entirely and always among my favorite topics.

My two favorite sections easily were 'Shadows and Depths' and 'The River of Death'. They were broken down further into sections, among the most interesting being 'Legends of the River'. Unfortunately it was just a few short pages and dealt with the paranormal element. Surely some of the more well-known stories could have been elaborated on, if Ackroyd could spend 80 pages talking about those who work on the river. Some of those chapters I skimmed, not going to lie. 'Offerings' was another chapter I found most interesting, as it dealt with the many hundreds of thousands of objects recovered from the Thames, constantly. From weapons and brooches to skulls, the Thames is a keeper of secrets that we will never be able to know. It really is fascinating it macabre sort of way the amount of skulls that have been discovered.

Side note to Ackroyd - don't suppose things about Eleanor of Aquitaine. At one point he mentions a location where Henry II's mistress 'Fair Rosamund' lived until her death, stating, "...It was said that she was eventually poisoned by Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine." While a little revenge in the middle ages would not have been unheard of, let's be realistic. Henry had imprisoned Eleanor for fifteen years, seeing as how she kept inciting their sons into rebellion against him. She was powerful enough in her own right and had little need for Henry at that point in their lives.

But, to end on a positive note, I loved the many maps included - especially in the additional material, 'An Alternative Topography, from Source to Sea' where Ackroyd takes the reader from the beginning of the Thames to the end, stopping at the various villages, castles, and cities along the way. There were many photographs as well to enhance the descriptions throughout and despite that massive amount of pollution, I still want to follow the river myself from start to finish. What a journey that would be.

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