In 2017, following a 140-year legal dispute between the government of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Māori people, the Whanganui River was granted personhood. Two years later, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh bestowed legal personhood on every one of its rivers. Earlier this year, the Magpie River in Quebec became a legal person following a campaign by the Indigenous Innu people. Enforcement is awkward, and rights must be realised through human guardians, but the symbolism of these recognitions is radical and far-reaching. They destabilise conceptions of nature as a store of commodities. Personified rivers are granted the right to flow, the right not to be polluted, and the right to sue. While rivers elsewhere are gaining moral recognition, England’s are full of shit.
Last year, a walker in the hills west of Guadalajara, Mexico came across a large hole that looked like the entrance to a railway tunnel. (The Mexican Guadalajara is named after the city in central Spain; the word is Arabic, meaning ‘valley of stones’.) He walked inside it a long way, noticing that every eleven metres there was a hole in the ceiling admitting sunlight. He had found a qanat.
Perhaps we have only ourselves to blame. By awarding last year’s top prize to an underwater entry, and then publishing a watery cover one week into the contest, we were asking for it. There have been an unprecedented number of entries to this year’s #readeverywhere competition that feature pools, streams, rivers, lakes and seas. These readers seem to be forgetting something important: the London Review of Books isn’t waterproof.