Thames Literature

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Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Thu Apr 21, 2011 3:37 pm

I much enjoyed this- even more, in some ways, than Ackroyd's fascinating companion volume "London: The Biography":




Here's The Independent's review:

Thames: Sacred River, By Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd dips his net into London's river and dredges up wonders

Reviewed by Christopher Hawtree

Sunday, 9 September 2007


A lot of unfortunate householders have had more than their share of the Thames lately. The Thames's daily flow (four-and-a-half billion gallons, measured at Teddington Weir) rivals that of the prolific Ackroyd, and this sturdy book twists and turns into an entertaining historical and geographical account redolent of England's very heart. Floods are nothing new, of course. Some 10,000 perished in AD38 and three centuries later the threat of more watery turbulence made human activity in London sparse. As Ackroyd remarks: "The curious nature of the phenomenon, however, is that floods always seem to be unexpected. Floods are forgotten, until the next one occurs."

Part of a body that is 60 per cent water, the human brain is at the centre of the book. "The Thames contains all times.... The thoughts of anyone, standing by the river, seem of necessity to go both forwards and backwards; they may be guided by the flow of the water itself but there is also some quality of the river that encourages such contrary motion.... It is the almost imperceivable motion of expectation and remembrance, poised between two worlds. And of course there are occasions when if you gaze at one spot long enough, so that it seems to detach itsself from the flow, then time stops."

Eliot's biographer here straddles eras – times past, present and future – sometimes in a matter of paragraphs. He switches from a summary of Isis, repository of human memory, benefactress of rivers, goddess of fertility, to the workers in corn warehouses who had scant time for such notions while fixing over their shoes the sacking which brought the insult "toe-rag" for anybody deemed of lowly status.

At first, Thames: Sacred River appears a meditation upon the shared subconscious but is in fact, as with the river itself, something where one can halt at any point, cast off, and land a gem. Many readers set about Ackroyd's London: The biography in that random fashion, as they did his less popular but equally engrossing study of the English imagination, Albion. These are hefty works which can be rewardingly snacked upon. Aided by two researchers, Thames supplies more statistics than can be absorbed at a sitting. One nugget follows another at a clip. Time was when superstition meant that a bridge contained a human sacrifice (a tradition perhaps continued by gangland types during motorway construction). A summary of smuggling suggests that such was the surplus of gin in 18th-century Essex it was used for window cleaning. The phrase "to set the Thames on fire" could derive not from bombing raids but the sieve, or temse, used for shaking flour by workmen, the less efficient of whom were unable "to set the temse on fire" by their action. Look below Blackfriars Bridge for the opening through which the Fleet pours. Pudding Lane was named for the excrement pots collected there by boats.

Many writers bob through these pages, although not Eliot's "I think that the river / Is a strong brown god". In "The Dry Salvages" he calls it "implacable. / Keeping his season and rages, destroyer, reminder / Of what men choose to forget" . Little known is John Taylor, most of whose 200 works are riverine (an adjective much favoured by Ackroyd); better known is Shelley's friend Thomas Love Peacock, whose poem "The Genius of the Thames" Ackroyd mentions, but not the glorious opening of his novel Crotchet Castle: "In one of those beautiful valleys, through which the Thames (not yet polluted by the tide, the scouring of cities, or even the minor defilement of the sandy streams of Surrey) rolls a clear flood through flowery meadows." Nobody can read that novel without feeling a spring in the step.

Such an idyll informs Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, present here but not the opening section woundingly cut from childen's editions, denying them that image of Mole at work while, Eliotesque, "the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea."

That is an emblem of Ackroyd's tangible and philosophical view of the river. Some might also recall his study of cross-dressing (Dressing Up, 1979). "When confronted with Father Thames and with Isis as the assumed deities of the Thames, it is perhaps not surprising that there has been some debate concerning the gender of the river.... The Thames itself seems to switch identity. In its upper reaches it is presumed to be feminine, and was known to William Morris as 'this far off, lonely mother of the Thames', yet as the river approaches London it is deeemed to be masculine."

The word which so looms as to lose neutrality is "it". Many sentences begin with "It". On page 157 there are nine of them, three in succession; 200 pages later, facing pages contain paragraphs which begin "It is perhaps". A peculiar trope, it – not always the river itself – hinders the flow, jangling within a discussion of the changing colours: "when storm clouds pass across it, it turns to the deepest grey and charcoal" – the first could be dropped, there is no confusing the second with the plural clouds.

Not simply indulging the joys of pedantry, this is to recognise that Ackroyd's book is one with which readers will engage, so much so that, inevitably, one puzzles at his referring to just one film – Four Weddings and a Funeral at that. The Thames in film needs exploring. It could yet inspire a great contemporary drama in which the criminal fraternity finds its way to the insatiable sea.



Last edited by eddie on Wed Jun 15, 2011 2:47 am; edited 2 times in total

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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Mon May 09, 2011 5:37 pm

Not the Thames, but close enough:

To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing – review

Olivia Laing's walk from source to sea along the Ouse in Sussex is a meandering, meditative delight

Paul Farley The Observer, Sunday 8 May 2011


The river Ouse in Sussex, inspiration for Olivia Lain's first book. Photograph: Simon Colmer/Alamy

In one of his short essays, GK Chesterton describes taking coloured chalks and brown paper up on to the Sussex Downs to do some sketching. Partway into a portrayal of a herd of cows, he realises, to his annoyance, he has forgotten to bring any white. He mopes around in a sort of despair, before suddenly realising: he is sitting on "an immense warehouse of white chalk". Problem solved. He breaks off a piece of the rock underfoot, and he's away.


To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing

A kind of desire to draw with, and be drawn by, the landscape informs Olivia Laing's first book. In 2009, a series of minor crises led Laing to the Ouse in Sussex. The river – like all rivers – has magnetic properties, and a reassuring sense of direction that appeals to those who've "lost faith with where they're headed". More than its geographical, material facts or its winding blue filament on an OS map, it provides a metaphor for time's eddy and flow, and for memory.

History hasn't crossed paths with the Ouse very often, and if we only know one thing about this river, it's likely to be that it was where Virginia Woolf drowned herself – wearing Wellington boots, fastening on her hat and filling her jacket pockets with heavy stones – in March 1941. Laing was aware of Woolf as soon as she first dipped her hand in the Ouse a decade ago, and began returning for walks and swims that "amassed the weight of ritual". Laing and the Ouse have history.

With Woolf as a presiding spirit, she undertakes to walk this 42-mile, ten-a-penny kind of English river that rises near Haywards Heath and empties into the Channel at Newhaven (City of the Dead, according to Woolf) from source to sea. Significantly, she chooses a week at midsummer, the year's hinge. The journey she records here feels like a clearing and a clarifying, bringing to mind the old Latin tag solvitur ambulando: literally, sorting it out by walking. She immerses herself in the landscape; she achieves that trance-like state "when the feet and the blood seem to collide and harmonise" that's conducive to writing.

And the writing, at its best, is wonderfully allusive – a golden cloud of summer pollen is as fecund and generative as the wind Plato thought could impregnate horses – and precise, often finding all manner of surprising likenesses: dragonflies "the size of kitchen matches" cruise the air; cut grass is baled in blue plastic "the exact colour of surgical scrubs". The book's subject and structure fuse pleasingly, weaving and meandering, changing pace and tone, pooling into biographical, mythical or historical backwaters before picking up the thread of Laing's riparian journey again.

It's easy to lose grip – one digression leads from Laing's anxieties about entering the maze of a wood into a childhood memory of listening to a story tape of The Wind in the Willows in her father's car, before entering the troubled waters of Kenneth Grahame's life – but overall it seems a course worth taking. A chapter centred on the barons' war of the 13th century weaves together several channels of thought and inquiry deftly, and ends with a lovely, galvanising confluence: the Hastings train passing over the compacted bones of the men who fought at the Battle of Lewes in 1264, set in chalk downs built from the slow accumulation of the plates and shells of tiny marine animals.

It's hard not to warm to Laing, a self-confessed obsessive hydrophiliac, as a guide. She packs a slab of emergency cheese that sweats worryingly over the course of her weeklong walk. She is candidly nervous around cows, in the mazy isolation of woods, on a road leading through peeling terraced housing. She might start missing her eyeliner. She gets lost, and gives her rucksack a good kicking.

Laing values her river walk less for its social dimensions than as an opportunity for solitude and reflection. The past falls open unexpectedly, and its wider accretions and effacements – the lost forest of Andredesleage, the iguanodon bones Gideon Mantell discovered in the Wealden sandstone, the Piltdown Man forgery a century later – loom over the landscape she walks through. Often, the people she encounters are italicised noises-off. These irruptions serve to heighten the sense of Laing's absorption, and the scale of her thought, but run the risk of her sounding a little rarefied: a shame since her reading of Woolf's diaries, letters and unpublished work here goes some way to debunking similar, routine assumptions about that writer.

Woolf was one of those authors whose "paper rivers" formed the origin of Laing's watery obsessions, and there's an intriguing correspondence between "sources": rooting in "a copse of hazel and stunted oak" to find the indefinite "clammy runnel" of the Ouse, and shuffling among original manuscripts in a bone-dry archive. The subsequent journey to the sea is shaded by existential doubt but lit by what Laing the walker finds at her feet. Another writer who walked in Sussex, John Cowper Powys, experienced similar moments of delirious happiness over a century ago, the simple ability to bear witness being "sufficient reward for having been born upon this cruelty-blasted planet!" We find our happiness on this Earth, or not at all, and the Ouse, tricked from its course, poisoned and abstracted, flows implacably on. It's a bigger, deeper river on paper now, and we might say Laing has put it on the map; but allowed to slip free of our grid references feels truer, and more affirmative.


Paul Farley is a poet and co-author of Edgelands

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011


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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Wed Jun 15, 2011 2:55 am


The Wind in the Willows- Kenneth Grahame.

Wiki:

Main characters

Mole – A mild-mannered, home-loving animal, and the first character to be introduced. Fed up with spring cleaning in his secluded home, he ventures into the outside world and develops a more productive life. Originally overawed by the hustle and bustle of the riverbank, he eventually adapts.

Ratty – A relaxed and friendly water vole, he loves the river and takes Mole under his wing. He is implied to be occasionally mischievous, and can be stubborn when it comes to doing things outside of his riverside lifestyle.

Mr. Toad – The wealthiest character and owner of Toad Hall. Although good-natured, Toad is impulsive and conceited, eventually imprisoned for theft, dangerous driving and impertinence to the rural police. He is prone to obsessions and crazes, such as punting, houseboating, and horse-drawn caravans, each of which in turn he becomes bored with and drops. Several chapters of the book chronicle his escape from prison, disguised as a washer-woman.

Mr. Badger – A gruff, solitary figure who "simply hates society", yet is a good friend to Mole and Ratty. A friend of Toad's now-deceased father, he is often firm and serious with Toad, but at the same time generally patient and well-meaning towards him. He can be seen as a wise hermit, a good leader and gentleman, embodying common sense. He is also brave and a skilled fighter, and helps clear the Wild Wooders from Toad Hall.

Otter and Portly – A friend of Ratty and his son.

The Gaoler's Daughter – The only major human character; helps Toad escape from prison.

The Chief Weasel – He and a band of weasels, stoats, and ferrets from the Wild Wood plot to take over Toad Hall.

Inhabitants of the Wild Wood – Weasels, stoats, ferrets, foxes and others, who are described by Ratty thus: "all right in a way... but... well, you can't really trust them".

Pan – A god who makes a single, anomalous appearance in Chapter 7, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Important to Pink Floyd fans like Tats).

The Wayfarer – A vagabond seafaring rat, who also makes a single appearance. Ratty briefly considers following his example, before Mole manages to persuade him otherwise.

Squirrels and rabbits, who are generally good (although rabbits are described as "a mixed lot").

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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Wed Jun 15, 2011 2:59 am



John Tenniel's illustration of the mouse in the Pool of Tears from "Alice in Wonderland".

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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Wed Jun 15, 2011 3:03 am

Lines Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

William Wordsworth

Sept. 3, 1802

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!


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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Wed Jun 15, 2011 3:18 am


Marcus Stone's frontispiece for "Our Mutual Friend" by Charles Dickens.


A SINISTER bird of prey seemed Jesse Hexam, crouched in the stern of a dirty row boat, his eyes fixed upon the broad waters of the Thames, his arms bare, his hair matted, his clothes mud-begrimed. Twilight deepened the shadows cast by the huddled buildings of London, but his gaze did not swerve. His daughter, a girl of twenty, rowing in obedience to his nods, regarded him with fascinated dread. Suddenly he stiffened; the bird of prey had sighted the quarry. A few minutes later behind the boat a body bobbed and lunged. Hexam had found another corpse, the pockets of another drowned soul to rifle. It was this grisly livelihood that was reflected in the frightened eyes of Lizzie Hexam.


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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Wed Jun 15, 2011 3:25 pm


1889 first edition.


Title page of the 1889 edition.

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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Wed Jun 15, 2011 3:34 pm

Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse mysteries are set in and around Oxford where the Thames is known by the name of its twin sister, Isis. These are the novels with the the closest riverine associations:


The Dead of Jericho- CD.


The Wench is Dead- CD.


The Jewel That Was Ours- CD.

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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Wed Jun 15, 2011 3:50 pm

Just about as far from the Isis as you can get in geographical terms is the setting of Iain Sinclair's Downriver:



For all his obscurities, his squalour and his apparent nihilism, Sinclair can occasionally stun one with a striking image such as his comparison in Downriver of the Thames Flood Barrier resembling the armoured heads of gigantic Templar knights rising from the waters:


River Thames Flood Barrier.

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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Wed Jun 15, 2011 10:21 pm



Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Wed Jun 15, 2011 10:23 pm

ETON BOATING SONG:

Jolly boating weather,
And a hay harvest breeze,
Blade on the feather,
Shade off the trees,
Swing swing together,
With your bodies between your knees,
Swing swing together,
With your bodies between your knees.

Skirting past the rushes,
Ruffling o'er the weeds,
Where the lock stream gushes,
Where the cygnet feeds,
Let us see how the wine-glass flushes,
At supper on Boveney meads,
Let us see how the wine glass flushes,
At supper on Boveney meads.

Thanks to the bounteous sitter,
Who sat not at all on his seat,
Down with the beer that's bitter,
Up with the wine that's sweet,
And Oh that some generous "critter",
Would give us more ducks to eat!

Carving with elbow nudges,
Lobsters we throw behind,
Vinegar nobody grudges,
Lower boys drink it blind,
Sober as so many judges,
We'll give you a bit of our mind.

"Dreadnought" "Britannia" "Thetis",
"St George" "Prince of Wales" and "Ten",
And the eight poor souls whose meat is,
Hard steak, and a harder hen,
But the end of our long boat fleet is,
Defiance to Westminster men.

Rugby may be more clever,
Harrow may make more row,
But we'll row for ever,
Steady from stroke to bow,
And nothing in life shall sever,
The chain that is round us now,
And nothing in life shall sever,
The chain that is round us now.

Others will fill our places,
Dressed in the old light blue,
We'll recollect our races,
We'll to the flag be true,
And youth will be still in our faces,
When we cheer for an Eton crew,
And youth will be still in our faces,
When we cheer for an Eton crew.

Twenty years hence this weather,
May tempt us from office stools,
We may be slow on the feather,
And seem to the boys old fools,
But we'll still swing together,
And swear by the best of schools,
But we'll still swing together,
And swear by the best of schools.

Ordinarily only the first, sixth, seventh and eighth stanzas are sung.

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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Wed Jun 15, 2011 10:33 pm


The English Augustin poet Alexander Pope.



His Villa at Twickenham by the banks of the Thames.


Pope in his grotto in the grounds of the Twickenham villa.

Pope’s Villa was separated from his main garden by the road and in October 1720 he obtained a licence to construct a tunnel under the road to connect the two. The tunnel led out of the basement of the villa where, in the central section, Pope made his first grotto. He described his delight and happiness in finishing the grotto in a letter to his friend Edward Blount in 1725:

"I have put the last hand to my works…happily finishing the subterraneous Way and Grotto: I then found a spring of the clearest water, which falls in a perpetual Rill, that echoes thru’ the Cavern day and night. …When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture…And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms…at which when a Lamp…is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place..."

The tunnel acquired decoration, so forming an extension to the grotto itself. Dr Johnson, wrote a mocking but inaccurate description: "A grotto is not often the wish or pleasure of an Englishman, who has more frequent need to solicit rather than exclude the sun, but Pope's excavation was requisite as an entrance to his garden, and, as some men try to be proud of their defects, he extracted an ornament from an inconvenience, and vanity produced a grotto where necessity enforced a passage".


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Re: Thames Literature

Post  eddie on Sat Jun 18, 2011 1:44 pm

More on the River Ouse:

*********************************************************************************
To the River by Olivia Laing – review

Virginia Woolf haunts this well-trodden path to the sea

Jonathan Bate guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 June 2011 23.55 BST

"A great many must be walking over England nowadays for the primary object of writing books," wrote Edward Thomas, who spent the years immediately before the first world war doing just that. "It has not been decided whether this is a worthy object," he added with characteristic wryness. From the 1920s onwards, metropolitan taste-makers were in general agreement that of all literary genres, the English Journey was among the least worthy of serious consideration. It belonged with the occasional essay and the countryman's nature notes as an epitome of all that was middlebrow, provincial and reactionary.


To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing

Edward Thomas made the remark early in The Icknield Way, a classic example of the genre, structured around a 10-day walk across middle England, with diversions into the highways and byways of literary anecdote, folklore, natural history and the passing conversation of stout, red-faced salt-of-the-earth types. In the second half of the 20th century, volumes of this kind languished by the barrow-load outside the second-hand bookshops on Charing Cross Road. To the young writer seeking to earn her spurs – let alone to publishers and literary agents – nothing would have seemed more quixotic, indeed retrograde, than the composition of a highly personal and digressive account of a ramble on a long-distance footpath or a walk along the riverbank.

Something changed just before the turn of the millennium, in large measure as a result of the late flowering of three extraordinary writers born at the back end of the second world war. Iain Sinclair's Lights Out For the Territory (1997) reinvented the walking book as a postmodern collage of psychogeography, dirty realism and romantic nostalgia for a lost Albion. WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (1998) showed that if you had a distinctive literary voice you could hold together personal memory, minute observation and obscure learning in the form of a journey through a landscape that to ordinary eyes seemed humdrum. And Roger Deakin's Waterlog (1999) substituted river for road in a wild swim through the watery sources of Englishness. The example of Sinbaldkin, as we might christen the trio, has shaped the prose of a new generation of non-fiction writers from Robert Macfarlane and Mark Cocker to (with a more cosmopolitan twist) Philip Hoare and Edmund de Waal.

To the River, Olivia Laing's debut book, follows the River Ouse in Sussex just as Edward Thomas followed the Icknield Way, but she manages her account very much in the manner of Sinbaldkin. She has an eye for a floating leaf and an ear for the intrusion of ugly modernity in a pub car park. She wanders from classical mythology to the Venerable Bede's sparrow to an acute paragraph of literary criticism concerning the multiple meanings of the word "incapable" in Gertrude's description of the drowned Ophelia.

The Sussex Ouse draws Laing because it is the river by which Virginia Woolf lived and in which she drowned herself in 1941. The book's project is to use the river to enter the stream of Woolf's consciousness and to follow in her literary wake. The pages about her last novel, Between the Acts, are exceptionally well done. There is something very male about the Sinbaldkin output, and it is to Laing's credit that she succeeds in feminising the genre.

That said, there are clear dangers in being Sinbaldkin's daughter. The temptation to over-write, for a start: "a scurf of petals drifting idly along the bank" – an editor could have blue-pencilled that idle "idly". And then the desire to include every last bit of obscure knowledge: there is a logic to the progression from the riverbank to The Wind in the Willows to the death of Kenneth Grahame's son, but do we really need to know that another Edwardian Sussex man of letters, EV Lucas, owned a formidable stash of pornography as well as editing the works of Charles Lamb? There is a certain predictability to the whole thing: once the historical lore starts accumulating, you just know that sooner or later Piltdown Man will come lumbering over the hill. And, inevitably, the book, like the river, ends by going into the blue with Derek Jarman at Dungeness.

The genre is ripe for parody, but that is only a sign of how well it has re-established itself.

Jonathan Bate's books include The Song of the Earth.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

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