In Praise Of London's 'Old Father'

It has been the river of gold and the river of death, a river of pleasure and a river of trade. London arose upon its banks, and the Thames has been the single most important factor in the city's development. It is the central deity of London, the "Old Father" who is alternately reverenced and cursed. Rivers are often considered to be feminine presences within the masculine environment of the city, but this particular river has always been male. It carries with it too many harsh associations.

London is uniquely a city of power and commerce, and these twin commodities were carried by its waters just as surely and as swiftly as any more tangible cargoes. The original city was, in fact, defined by its access to the Thames, and from the 10th century it was celebrated as a great port and market. The river brought in a thousand vessels and introduced the world to the heart of the city. There came wine from Burgundy, turpentine from the Baltic and oil from Greece.

By the 16th century there was a daily average of some 2,000 vessels upon it, but for poets and chroniclers it also became the river of magnificence, with royal entrances and civic pageants. At the time of Elizabeth I the Thames became the stage of the world, with the instruments of London music sweetly sounding across the water. The flowing images of glory were celebrated in the poetry of Spenser and of Shakespeare, before they were revived in the paintings of Canaletto and of Turner. The soft and silver Thames has had many admirers.

Real silver, however, was of more immediate concern. By 1700 the Thames was handling 80 percent of England's imports, and when Daniel Defoe wrote of trade "flowing" in and out of London he was using the river as a metaphor for the city's life. The great wharves and warehouses were alternately compared to the pyramids of Egypt, the aqueducts of Rome and the engravings of Piranesi. By 1930 the port of London employed some 100,000 people on approximately 1,700 wharves.

Newsweek subscription offers >

But the bombing of the second world war, and the great changes of maritime commerce, rendered the old docks superfluous. They grew silent, and the once busy banks became a wasteland. Yet out of this dereliction, little more than a decade later, rose the shining edifices and refurbished warehouses of the area known as Docklands, confirming that pattern of deliquescence and revival which is at the center of London's commercial life.

The river has another aspect. The narrator of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" observes one stretch of the Thames and remarks that "this also... has been one of the dark places of the earth." It has always been the great haven for suicides, while along its banks the wretched and the dispossessed have congregated for more than two centuries. The river is, in that sense, a true emblem of the city's oppression. The Thames, the begetter of commerce, is also the most visible harbor for the miseries which a commercial civilization can induce.

As a result, anonymity and secrecy became part of its life. Where the banks of the Seine are endlessly open and approachable, there were stretches of the Thames that actively deterred visitors. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, much of it was hidden away behind dark warehouses, concealed by damp riverine walls, only fitfully glimpsed between the narrow lanes and noisome alleys which led down to the water. "A damp-looking dirty blackness," according to Henry James, was its "universal tone." Nathaniel Hawthorne considered it to be a river of guilt and despair "hiding a million of unclean secrets within its breast." It was "dirty" in a most literal sense, too, since for many years all the sewers of London ran directly into its water, creating a vast cloaca of stench and disease.

Yet now this ancient river has been renewed. Prolonged efforts at purification have rendered it so clear that salmon, and 81 other species of fish, have returned to its waters after an absence of 150 years. Its outward, as well as its inward, health has also improved. The city has once more turned its face toward the water and restored the river as its living center. A new Tate Gallery, half of glass, is being erected beside the reconstructed Globe Theatre; the 16th and 20th centuries are, as it were, joined in an embrace. The Thames has once more become a river of pleasure, transporting more people than goods, and in the process London itself has been revived. Edmund Spenser's refrain "Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song" is often quoted in disquisitions upon it; but the loud magniloquent song of the Thames itself will never end.

Newsweek subscription offers >

In Praise Of London's 'Old Father' | News