The Memory Banks of the River

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Review of 'The Thames', Jonathan Schneer, Little, Brown £18.99

For those of you who, like me, see the Thames as merely a bit of grey water to cross if ever you have to enter the dark unknown that is south London Jonathan Schneer's new book about England's most famous river is a good read. Schneer portrays the Thames as a backdrop to many of the most famous events in English history. At times the attempt is somewhat laboured - as when he claims that the Thames affected the signing of the Magna Carta because it was signed at Runnymede, which happens to be close to the river. He does, however, manage to persuade the reader that 'through the history the Thames runs gleaming'.

It is when Schneer gives us a glimpse of the lives of the ordinary people who lived by and on the Thames that the book is at its best. When he vividly portrays the 1707 naval mutiny on the Thames you can feel the tension as the sailors decide to go beyond the bread and butter demands of the sailors' mutiny at Great Yarmouth and stand on the verge of revolutionary demands of democracy in the king's navy. The blockade of the Thames, which directly hit business interests of the City, was a powerful tactic employed by the sailors to put pressure on the government.

Schneer rightly recognises that the Thames is a different river for different people. He contrasts the river of Turner and William Morris of idyllic summer days and farm labourers working within sight of a calm and pleasant stream with the river at Tilbury that housed the prison hulks described by Dickens as 'a wicked Noah's ark'. It was so polluted by the 19th century that survivors of a collision of two ships in 1878 died days later from the diluted sewage they had swallowed while waiting to be rescued.

Schneer succeeds in his attempt to portray the life of the Thames as London progressed through the ages and gives a real sense of the importance of the river, but I was left dissatisfied that the lives of the people who made and were made by the Thames were not painted larger. He paints a scene of all classes mixing in a world turned upside down at the famous London frost fairs where 'people of all qualities and ages... walked out upon the river'. He is sympathetic to the plight of the watermen who attempted to organise when their livelihoods were threatened by the impact of these frost fairs. The dockers' struggle for higher wages in the 1889 dock strike is highlighted but equal weight is given to the Thatcherite rejuvenation of the Docklands in the 1980s led by profiteering fat cats. For Schneer it seems both groups have played a valid part in the making of modern London.

I found this book enjoyable as it successfully conjures up a variety of images of the Thames but just like a trip down the river it only gives a quick glimpse of all there is to see.