Thames: Sacred River 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Vintage, 608 pp., £14.99, August 2008, 978 0 09 942255 6
Show More
Show More

This morning there is a man in a short black coat running across a high brick wall; a hunchbacked fly springing sticky-fingered from perch to perch, before dropping heavily into the street. The wall – weathered yellow brick grouted with carbon deposits and grime – is enough of a barrier to have doubled in television films, cop shows or faked documentaries as the exterior of a prison. The polluted acres of the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company were re-created, after war and bomb damage, as Haggerston Park. The man in the black coat, barely pausing to steady himself, dives into the spasmodic traffic; motorists unable to believe their luck that the lights are working and the permanent utility trenches have migrated a couple of hundred yards to the south. He scuttles away, rucksack on stooped shoulders, distancing himself from his earlier disguise as wall-walker, acrobat; a workaday man of the crowd. But even with the rucksack – wrong colour, wrong shape – the man stands out: too furtive, too fiercely concentrated, fleeing the scene rather than jogging or striding like the fortunate denizens of the multi-balconied Adelaide Wharf, a spanking new canalside development in loudly upbeat colours. He lacks the compulsory bicycle. The rare flat-dwellers without acrylic helmets, released by security gates, move at an effortless pace, clicking through the gears, not registering where they are but where they ought to be, wired for input, noise infusions, lip-synching interior monologues. The human fly’s rucksack is stuffed, skew, sleeping bag dangling like a spare arm. He may well have been an early-rising, walk-to-work rambler, appreciative of the ruled shadow-lines of the trees, the suddenly voluptuous blossom season; a man like myself, determined to respect his regular route in denial of the padlocked park gates. Rough sleepers, in these pinched days, have disappeared. Regiments of Polish builders have returned, according to rumour, to their native land. Portions of the high wall are mattressed in a tumble of wisteria, helpful to escapees. But the jumper is no botanist, no philosopher of wild places. He’s away before the dog accompanists are let into a green oasis that operates like the Marshalsea Prison: if you are inside when the bell sounds, you stay the night.

Low-level flats, from an era of less boastful regeneration, are set back from the road behind cushions of coarse grass, teardrop flower-beds planted in an attractively random fashion. The latest blocks, blindly monolithic, devour pavements and abolish bus stops. They aspire to an occult geometry of capital: Queensbridge Quarter, Dalston Square. Everything is contained, separate, protected from flow and drift. No junk mail, please. No doorstep hawkers. No doorsteps. The big idea is to build in-station car parks, to control ‘pedestrian permeability’, so that clients of the transport system exit directly into a shopping mall. Where possible, a supermarket operator underwrites the whole development, erecting towers on site, so that Hackney becomes a suburb of Tesco, with streets, permanently under cosmetic revision, replaced by 24-hour aisles. Light and weather you can control. Behaviour is monitored by a discreet surveillance technology.

On the rough lawn in front of the improved Haggerston flats, there is a chart, behind misted glass, in a wooden cabinet designed for community notices: a premature map of the Olympic Legacy. I move closer, but the text is still indecipherable and the spectral blot representing a portion of the Lower Lea Valley, shrouded in surrounding folds of grey, reminds me of the Hoo Peninsula, a secretive landscape at the mouth of the Thames Estuary. I should be out there now. I have been brooding on Peter Ackroyd’s notion that the Thames is a river like the Ganges or the Jordan, a place of pilgrimage, a source of spiritual renewal. ‘The river itself becomes a tremulous deity,’ he asserts. I carried Ackroyd’s epic, Thames: Sacred River, as I made a series of expeditions along the permitted riverpath from mouth to source. My bias, which I will attempt to overcome, tends towards the more cynical view ascribed to William Burroughs by Jack Kerouac. ‘When you start separating the people from their rivers what have you got? Bureaucracy!’

Having triumphantly ghosted London’s autobiography, Ackroyd’s obvious follow-up was the Thames: generator of life, origin of the city, a passage between the eternal verities of deep England and the world ocean. Drawing on the example of Hilaire Belloc’s The Historic Thames: A Portrait of England’s Greatest River (1907), Ackroyd discovers in this 214-mile journey, from Cotswolds to North Sea, a mirror for national identity. The river is a constant in history and the river is history, of a persuasion that reminds me of childhood favourites such as Henrietta Marshall’s Our Island Story, originally published in 1905 and glossed as ‘A History of England for Boys and Girls’. With its royal-blue cloth and heraldic shield, its text broken down into Jamie Oliver-sized portions suitable for juvenile digestion, this book is remembered for its illustrations by A.S. Forrest, a succession of poignant tableaux like a village hall pageant. The Thames underwrites a narrative of royal escapes, murdered princelings, futile rebellion. Richard II is rowed downstream to confront Wat Tyler and his peasant army. Unable to call on anything as formidable as the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group, the boy king refuses to step ashore. ‘Rough, rude men’ had been sent ‘all over the country’ to gather the iniquitous poll tax and the mood was ugly. Ackroyd mentions the incident, adding that the waters of Deptford ‘refreshed the rebellious followers of Wat Tyler and, at a later date, the rebels under Jack Cade’. Perkin Warbeck, who features in Marshall’s son et lumière procession, is noticed by Ackroyd in the act of ‘meeting his adherents by the banks of the Ravensbourne’. ‘No other tributary of the Thames,’ he writes, ‘has such a history of insurrection and bloodshed.’ One of the distinguishing features of Ackroyd’s Thames is recurrence; landscape is revised, personages come and go, the nature of the river never changes. The myth is animist, conservative and sensitive to the traditions of the old faith, Catholicism, as it is recovered from the residue of dissolved monasteries, forgotten shrines, sites of expulsion and exile.

The nursery version of the mess of history offered to the English children of 1905 was still playing in the years of austerity after the Second World War, when the imperialist dream was being reduced, painfully, to a heap of bloody fragments. Our Island Story, by the 1960s, was a pariah: Forrest’s melancholy illustrations were stripped from copies of the book and mounted to catch the eye of serial sentimentalists in antique markets. Charles I, a cloaked and lace-collared dandy, strolls across the park to his execution. Queen Matilda, hooded like Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, escapes across a winter landscape. The princes in the Tower are a suspect download soliciting close attention from a child protection unit. All very saccharine, morbid and outmoded – until the disregarded and rundown riverscape was recognised as a prime regeneration project. The corpse-fishers of Our Mutual Friend were recast as heritage television, while planning regulations for the Isle of Dogs, that unlucky swamp, were shredded for the construction of a shelf of towers. Michael Heseltine, a wild-haired, mad-eyed visionary (Klaus Kinski to Margaret Thatcher’s Werner Herzog), pushed Docklands across the Thames to the East Greenwich Peninsula, Bugsby’s Marshes. The obsessive, neurotic and delusional Millennium Dome concept was a remake of Fitzcarraldo, a film in which suborned natives (expendable extras) drag a paddle-steamer over a steep hill in order to get around an inconvenient bend in the river, the point being to bring Caruso, one of the gods of opera, to an upstream trading post. An insane achievement mirrored in the rebranding of the Dome, after its long and expensive limbo, as the O2 Arena: a popular showcase for cryogenic rock acts, artists presumed dead or missing in action, for Norma Desmond divas and the real Michael Jackson, a trembling skin-graft mask cursed with eternal youth. Parrot-scream arias and the cough of angry engines, as punters try to exit the gridlocked car park, carry across a broad expanse of oily water. Thames, Amazon, Congo: crumbling regimes like nothing better than a rumble in the jungle. A world-class photo-opportunity summit in some hangar on the edge of a dock, between old railway lines and a new airport. A major exclusion zone around a place nobody has any good reason to visit. A geography that only makes sense when viewed from a helicopter.

The reimagining of downriver stretches of the Thames was not limited to East Greenwich: fantasy settlements were imposed on vacant brownfield sites along the floodplain in Essex and Kent. Every act of demolition, every fresh-minted estate, required a recalibrating of history: as a hospital or asylum vanishes, we thirst for stories of Queen Elizabeth I at Tilbury or Pocahontas coming ashore, in her dying fever, at Gravesend. The documented records of the lives of those unfortunates shipped out to cholera hospitals on Dartford Marshes, or secure madhouses in the slipstream of the M25, can be dumped in a skip. Politicised history is a panacea, comforting the bereft, treating us, again and again, to the same consoling fables. Laminated boards appearing around loudly hyped newt reservations or permitted greenways, punchy and partial summaries of an approved narrative of the past, found their equivalent in the 2005 reissue of Our Island Story by the right-wing think-tank Civitas. John Clare, the education editor of the Daily Telegraph, appealed to his readers for donations to support this project. ‘They responded by sending in an astonishing £25,000.’ There were messages of endorsement from Lady Antonia Fraser and the feisty historian Andrew Roberts; the Economist saluted the new edition as ‘impeccably postmodern’; 5000 free copies were distributed to schools, a Trojan horse for early indoctrination in traditional values that would be reinforced by emphatic TV explainers vamping through the palaces and bedchambers of the Tudors. Supporting copy, put out by Civitas, warned that ‘people, including politicians of all parties, are worried by the failure of many young people now to engage with the institutions of the free society they live in.’ Denied access to the pieties of Our Island Story, a generation of misguided eco-protesters and climate-camp activists might find themselves on the wrong island, at Kingsnorth Power Station on Grain, kettled between Medway and Thames, waiting to be filmed, fingerprinted and battered by the successors, as Ackroyd might see it, of Richard II’s Blackheath enforcers. There is always a TSG presence, only the uniforms change. Now identification numbers vanish from shoulders and medics carry extendible batons.

One of Ackroyd’s enduring qualities is a sensitivity to national mood, from the gothic of Hawksmoor, anticipating the colonisation of Spitalfields by neo-Georgians hungry for a justifying myth, to the pitching of the Thames as a sacred river (against strong evidence to the contrary). Back in 1982, Ackroyd’s slender first novel was located on the banks of the river. The Great Fire of London was remarkable for prophesying, five years ahead of the event, Christine Edzard’s double-decker film of Little Dorrit. Here was a correspondence, a playful vortex of invention and coincidence in the style that Ackroyd would make familiar through bestselling biographies, histories and offshoot television documentaries. There is a characteristic tone he employs when, wrapped in a long dark coat and propped on boat or bridge, he is called on to impersonate himself, author of the city, actor-manager to the dark mysteries of a music-hall empire hovering at the outer limits of visibility. With rhetorical flourish and rolling cadences, he traces significant connections: ‘How slight its beginnings, how confident its continuing course, how ineluctable its destination within the great ocean.’ What has happened once will happen again. ‘The poetry of the Thames has always emphasised its affiliations with human purpose and with human realities.’

The film director in The Great Fire of London, the one who recognises the commercial potential of Little Dorrit, of the soon to be developed riverside of fake dungeons, re-created Shakespearean theatres, farmers’ markets, is called, with alliterative and poetic overkill, Spenser Spender. ‘Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.’ In conjuring Eliot’s footnoting of the Elizabethan poet in The Waste Land, Ackroyd suggests a genealogy of river writers, an assemblage of quotation and reference. He also prepared the ground for the Eliot biography that followed two years later; a biography in which he commends the poet’s ‘ability so to arrange various literary texts that they seem to form a coherent order among themselves’. This manufacture of a coherent narrative from accidental elements is what is happening on the south bank of the Thames, from the pomposity of City Hall to the opportunistic funland of the London Eye and the fish tanks and fast-food franchises of County Hall, the former seat of local government. Stretches of the official path along the river are marked, along with living-statue performance artists and street musicians, with uplifting quotations from approved poets set into the paving stones. Ackroyd always had a rare gift for leakage, publishing the fable before the thing happens, carrying out a programme of research that led London towards its next neurotic culture shift, not backwards into a revelation from some unnoticed aspect of the past. The Great Fire of London, modest and playful, points directly at the later epic of the Thames. Ackroyd is the writer who defines the precise moment at which locality becomes location.

With an apprenticeship served in Cambridge Modernism, contacts and alliances with New York poets, slim volumes put out by Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press, Ackroyd knew more than enough about the glittering particulars of Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams to give them their due, while gliding effortlessly in another direction. One of the characters in The Great Fire of London calms his rising panic by swimming lap after lap in a neighbourhood pool, a facility conscious of its uncertain status, its imminent dissolution. ‘The sounds and shouts of the pool seemed to him like echoes of a madhouse, a vast chamber of disorder.’ Local amenities, if they cannot explain themselves in a single sentence, vanish. That state of limbo, past and present interwoven, is where Ackroyd navigates. Predatory film-makers, a group who are most comfortable starting with the remake, stealing, borrowing, demonstrating their affinities, could read Ackroyd as a guidebook. They optioned and reoptioned his novels but never found a way to crack the problem of structure: it wasn’t about dialogue or narrative arc, yet the more you tinkered the less there was. Talking of Eliot, Ackroyd noticed that ‘his genius for organisation sometimes conceals a peculiar lack of content.’ Location is all about disguising this lack of content, smoke and mirrors, by demonstrating how one place, shot with enough care, looks just like another. The drab Southwark of Little Dorrit and the Marshalsea Prison, exploited by Ackroyd, adapted itself within a decade into a standard cop-show backdrop. By 2001 it was a suitable lodging for Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Christine Edzard set up her studio, a cottage industry for costume and artefacts, along the river in Rotherhithe.

Only Ackroyd, with his system of recurrences and interconnections, could see the river as London’s unifying metaphor. ‘He left the café and walked beside the Thames,’ he wrote, bringing his first novel to its conclusion.

The river was still, as though gathering to itself the white and orange beams of the street lamps which were reflected in its darkness . . . Spenser Spender was filled with a sensation of lightness, as though his own body were moving out, too, across the water, implicated in the lives of these human beings who trudged slowly through the dark.

The tributaries of the Thames and the lost rivers are the veins and arteries of a finely balanced ecosystem. This is another Ackroyd proposition. And again they are anthropomorphised, made into supplicants, handmaidens to the titular stream. The long-suffering Lea quits its sylvan source to endure a penance of foul industries, travellers’ camps, waste disposal plants, ‘until eventually it finds its surcease at Bow Creek.’ Ackroyd responds positively to the regeneration of areas where deepwater docks lay idle for so long and warehouses were occupied by artists and premature economic migrants:

Both banks of the Thames were rejuvenated. There are now large blocks of apartments where there were once derelict wharves. The old canals of the docks have been replaced with marinas. Shopping areas, apartments, public houses and walkways are now, for example, situated where once St Katharine’s Dock lay huddled beneath the Tower . . . The neighbourhood of the river is recovering its ancient exuberance and energy, and is reverting to its existence before the residents and houses were displaced by the building of the docks in the 19th century.

In other words, to go forward we must go back. London is unchanging. The golden hour liveliness of Canary Wharf’s bankers, speculators and journalists, as they spread through a chain of generic dockside bars, under the shelter of those ubiquitous patio-heater palm trees, is a revival of the riverbank life described by De Quincey at the time of the Ratcliffe Highway murders: ‘manifold ruffianism shrouded impenetrably under the mixed hats and turbans of men whose past was untraceable to any European eye’. Where the film-maker Derek Jarman, a figure who might have broken free from the fevered microclimate of The Great Fire of London, saw the downriver reaches of Silvertown, with its abandoned flour mills, as a site for dervish dances and the rituals of a punk apocalypse, Ackroyd underwrote a rhetoric of regeneration, providing political opportunism with a sympathetic mythology. Intimations of psychotic breakdown, financial and ecological catastrophe, located by J.G. Ballard in the hermetic towers of High-Rise (1975), were limned by Ackroyd, with characteristic generosity, as the first green shoots of recovery for a toxic wasteland. Ballard’s dog-eating balcony-dwellers inhabit a premature version of the Thatcherite Docklands that Thames: Sacred River works hard to re-enchant. ‘Glass curtain-walling and telecommunication aerials,’ Ballard wrote, ‘were obscured by the traffic smog, blurring Laing’s memories of the past.’

From this miasma, the lightshow of pollution, Ackroyd’s spectres are formed and the icons of a new doctrine revealed. Fragments from mystery religions combine with thrusting manifestations of corporate finance to compose a sculpture park in which anonymous drones labour and play. Cesar Pelli’s Canary Wharf tower is ‘a square prism with pyramidal top in the traditional form of the obelisk’. Pelli is Nicholas Hawksmoor reborn, dominating the eastern reaches of London, the rusty, algae-clogged backwaters of the Lea, with hieratic Egyptian quotations. That New Labour pavilion, the Millennium Dome, is presented as a talisman, ‘covered by the largest roof in the world’. If Ackroyd’s ‘landmark’ amulet, the ‘great dome’, offers a magical force-field operating in conjunction with its near neighbour the Thames Barrier, then the charm is taking a long time to work for those who are not subscribers to the vision of the Thames as a tabula rasa on which to experiment with occult manifestos of rebirth and rescripted history. The ennobled architects, who are also political consultants and grand-scheme promoters, confirm their allegiance – as Ackroyd points out – through their choice of title. Lord Rogers of Riverside, author of the Dome. Lord Foster of Thames Bank with his wobbly bridge.

It is inevitable that Ackroyd, with his belief in eternal recurrence, in London as an organic entity forever renewing itself from the darkest sources, looks kindly on the official script for the 2012 Olympics. Myths and symbols – torch-bearing processions, naked gladiators, flatpack stadia echoing Roman amphitheatres – are back in vogue. The aim is to avoid niggling local difficulties, the specifics of place, in order to forge a computer-generated fiction of national revival (by way of supersize shopping malls, media centres, committee-designed public parks in place of scabby edgeland wilderness):

The siting of the Olympic Games of 2012 in Stratford, and the rest of the East End of London, will materially help the development and refurbishment of the river as a principal urban resource. There have already been signs of new industries, and new forms of industry, converging upon its banks. In particular the high-technology electronics companies have arrived in the Thames Valley, and there are many industrial ‘parks’ placed beside the river . . . London will then once more become a river city . . . The river will once more become the highway of the nation.

Perhaps he is right. Like so many people in the Olympic boroughs, I’d got too close to the story, spent too many hours indulging in the vicarious hurt of the expelled allotment-holders, listening to tales of squatters evicted from a market café that was now a roofless, wire-crowned, unoccupied shell. Pain, frustration, impotence: they feed on themselves. Conspiracies, corruption. We are all too easily swallowed into a self-sustaining, multivoiced protest entity, a sack of squabbling cats certain of one thing: defeat.

To get back to the river I had to follow one of the less celebrated streams, the Northern Outfall Sewer, now rebranded as the Olympic Park Greenway. It seemed appropriate to visit the Beckton to Silvertown dispersal area, in part as a walk dedicated to J.G. Ballard, who was unwell and to whom I would report, and in part as an investigation of an emerging topography of sheds, retail parks and landscaped gardens made from decommissioned industrial sites. A zone whose defining structure might be ExCel London, a green-glazed venue on the Royal Docks, alongside City Airport, a spacious and secure hangar in which to stage arms fairs and conferences that bewail, at shameless expense, the collapsing money metaphor. The bill for the G20 dinner for 200 VIPs and their assorted interpreters and security operatives came to £500,000. It was calculated that each diner glugged through £140 of wine. Colourful block buildings hunkered into escarpments, shiny boulevards going nowhere, pristine developments whose balconies are brushed by incoming air traffic: they spread out from ExCel London like the dissolving thought-bubbles of the slick-suited politicians. The sewage processing plant, the bombed gasworks in which Stanley Kubrick restaged the Vietnam War, have been tactfully overlaid with a carpet of off-highway shopping colonies that can be read, working east, as a three-dimensional catalogue of our consumer habits and addictions. An archaeological trawl through the ruins of Woolworth’s bargain barn alongside the arsenic-poisoned hump of Beckton Alp to the minarets and struggling superstores of Gallions Reach. The aisles are broader than the lanes of the A13. Breakfast substitutes are available at any hour of day or night. If you are allowed to walk freely, without challenge, along the flank of ExCel London, there is nothing happening inside. Cliffs of glass, interior palm forests: an unexplained non-space like a plant house teleported from Kew Gardens. Denuded and without function.

I postponed my return to Ackroyd’s river until a mysterious pain, as if I had been clubbed in the night on the upper thigh, dispersed. If the fly-walker on the Haggerston wall was a portent, this was an auspicious morning for an excursion. Troubled by lawsuits hanging over my recent book about Hackney, a ban from Stoke Newington Library for the crime of publishing off-message Olympic jeremiads, I thirsted to be out in the air. It wasn’t just schoolteachers, doctors, social workers, half of London was medicated: Valium, Prozac, Xanax. Managed terror. And the other half was jogging down the narrow canal towpath, dodging cyclists who were forced into traffic, turned away from a safe route that was being relaid, yet again, as a way of securing continued budget. Pushy coots perched on the ruins of the last canal-bank makeover, barking at intruders. A pair of fond geese inspected the ledge where they would take turns, over a month or so, to fail to incubate an egg. The water looked worse than it had for years: like something out of a specimen bottle, flecked and dusty on the surface, fetid beneath. I was almost at Limehouse Basin before I spotted the first chicks of the season: the influence of the dirty, living Thames ameliorating the thorium-enhanced run-off from the Olympic Park.

Slogans have been revised on the wall near the new bridge that carries the old railway down to Broad Street; the one declared redundant in the mid-1980s when they wanted to replace a thriving commuter station with the pastiched New York ice rink of Broadgate Centre. A route that is deemed necessary once more, thanks to the Olympic transport hub at Dalston Junction, the reconnected station twinning us with Croydon. No longer is the innocence of G. Davis affirmed in large white letters. George is certainly not OK. The obituaries are in for a life of bad timing: he was caught at the wheel of a getaway van outside the Bank of Cyprus on the Seven Sisters Road in Holloway, 16 months after his release by the home secretary on the grounds that his conviction for a robbery at the London Electricity Board in Ilford was unsafe. New graffiti tell the world that Ian Tomlinson, an unfortunate pedestrian caught up in the G20 protests in the City, was murdered by the police. The calligraphy is elegant, the punctuation emphatic.

A strange and rather Ackroydian incident occurred as I walked past the railings of St John the Baptist Catholic church. I began to imagine that the young woman in the expensive leather jacket, just ahead of me, was limping slightly, favouring her right leg; a manicured hand brushing against the spot on the upper thigh where my nagging pain was located. As I gained on her, the limp became more pronounced and at the same time my own discomfort eased. By the time I crossed into Templecombe Road, she was hobbled, resting at the curb, while I skipped like a lamb. An act of transference that left me obscurely guilty. And which seemed to conjure, as a direct consequence, a cat’s cradle of blue and white incident tape. There is an agreement in Hackney: the police come out early, mobhanded, squad cars, vans, a works’ outing, and the postcode gangs (or negative youth affiliations) wait for twilight, a treaty arranged to avoid unnecessary aggravation. Those screaming sirens act as courtesy calls, giving dealers plenty of warning to remove themselves before they become tedious paperwork. Much policework these days is training in guerrilla documentation, an alternative film school. When the rumpus is over, it’s a war of competitive imagery: digital logging by the men in the flak jackets and soft-edged mobile-phone sweeps by climate camp protesters.

Casual pedestrianism is perceived as subversion. A few days after the death of Ian Tomlinson, I was walking down Grey Eagle Street in Spitalfields on my way to the City (strange things had been happening to my bank account, which was being emptied by a man I had never heard of, but who bypassed the security systems effortlessly). The pavement ran out, as pavements do, and I found myself squeezed against the wall by a white police van. There was plenty of room inside. ‘Do you mind telling me what you are doing in Grey Eagle Street – sir?’ I did have a shoulder bag and I was wearing jeans, a crumpled jacket and trainers. Not an obvious candidate for car theft, nor yet a punter, without a vehicle, for the twilight prostitutes who would not appear for another two or three hours. It was the crime of walking and then pausing, as I had to, when the pavement vanished.

The sacredness of the Thames beyond Beckton is not easy to identify. Without question, this landscape is closer to Ballard than to Ackroyd. It is a territory where the river excuses layer after layer of political initiatives, strategic malfunctions and half-completed or newly abandoned developments. A scheme for a bridge that would have connected the North and South Circular roads, and given London a second orbital motorway, was aborted by Boris Johnson: it was too closely associated with the former mayor, Ken Livingstone. Thames Gateway is a geographical area and a philosophy for which Johnson has no enthusiasm. Boris champions the Eagle comic wheeze of an airstrip-island at the mouth of the river, out beyond Sheppey.

I reported to Ballard on the way the retail parks (budget warehouses dressed with mock funnels like a beached armada) give way, after a strip of wilderness, to an empty road guarded by off-watch police cars, whose occupants graze on jumbo burgers. Near the river, secure buildings disguise their identity and purpose, indistinguishable from outer-rim universities or open prisons. One of these sleek sheds confesses to dealing in Logistics and Management. The motivation behind all this clamour is Olympic overspill. The copywriting is Wellsian: ‘The Thames Gateway: The Shape of Things to Come’. The cover of the brochure is a split-screen illustration, a female athlete on a pink track, arms raised aloft in a triumphalist V, and three new tower blocks on a riverside marina. Here, in computer-generated hyperreality, is the promised legacy. ‘World-class sporting facilities will be available for use by the local public. The largest new park in London since the Victorian Era – the size of Hyde Park – will provide a delightful new local facility.’ Meanwhile: you can buy into Gladedale’s waterside apartments, where double-glazing will keep out the roar of planes coming low over the Thames before skidding onto tarmac at City Airport. ‘Get the Buzz’ is the unfortunate slogan. The current bridge, on which you can stand, keeping your head down, while you watch Swiss Air jets banking steeply to avoid the pyramidal summit of the Canary Wharf tower, is named in honour of Sir Stephen Redgrave.

After hacking through brambles, picking a path around Magellan Boulevard, Atlantis Avenue and a boarded-up missionary hut, I found myself outside the perimeter fence of the steel-grey block of Buhler Sortex Ltd. Two men wearing crisp blue shirts with laminated identity badges were lunching beside the river, dipping lethargically into yellow cartons. ‘It’s all we can get,’ one of them said. ‘We have to go to the retail park, there is nothing else within five miles.’ They chose to avoid the canteen, to take the air by the Thames, looking across at Woolwich and Thamesmead, where estates grow up like bindweed, near neighbours to HM Prison Belmarsh, that upgrading of the convict hulks. Buhler Sortex, they told me, make food processing machines. They render meat. The old factory was in Stratford, where there was a busy town centre, pubs, cafés, some life. It was compulsorily purchased as part of the Olympic push. They had been relocated to this bleak exile in a conveniently empty quarter, between the sewage works and Royal Albert Dock.

After the buddleia and the butterflies of the permitted riverside strip, I headed west towards Silvertown and the Thames Barrier. If you travel thinking about a particular writer, he will map the mental landscape through which you pass. Even the photographs I was taking came from another era, a roll of black and white film that had been sitting on my desk for years. Out of nowhere, on a long stretch of closed-down nautical enterprises and small dockers’ pubs, a decorative Chinese arch appeared like the gateway to a secret city: loon fung now open. eat at our noodle bar. White stone lions. A warehouse displaying a profusion of richly scented produce, packets of tea with exotic designs. Red-gold fish basked in bubbling tanks, avoiding the gaze of potential diners. My meal of mushroom noodles, ‘hot and tasty’, washed down with gunpowder tea, cost £3. I asked Ballard once: in all his years in Shanghai, what was his favourite Chinese dish? ‘Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding,’ he said. ‘At home, we never touched the local food.’

The purest Ballardian set, poised chronologically between High-Rise and Millennium People, was an estate on the edge of the recently created Barrier Park (architectural planting in the deep trenches of an old dock). ‘The clocks seem to pause,’ Ballard wrote, ‘waiting for time to catch up with them . . . Money, always harder-wearing than asphalt, helped to repave the streets.’ I came back to Silvertown, to show this new park to my wife. Between the riverside gardens and the estate was a flyover on concrete stilts and a grove of palm trees and spiky bushes, discounted and left to its own devices. Through the tropical thicket, you could see the silver helmets of the Thames Barrier, the river-fronting balconies of stepped flats, and the gaunt backdrop of Jarman’s Millennium Mills from The Last of England. A snake, disturbed in the undergrowth, struck at my wife’s foot. When she got home, she found two neat puncture marks. The worst of the venom, she reckoned, was absorbed by the webbing of her boot.

I told Ballard about a leaflet I had picked up in the café at Barrier Park. It explained that one of the incomers to the flats had decided to operate his own neighbourhood watch system, by initiating a surveillance film club. Other members of the community could contact him by email and they would share images, caught on mobile phones, recording the behaviour of suspicious youths. An image bank would be established and the anonymity of the snoops preserved. As we penetrated the jungle, the wild garden with its cracked concrete paths and ramps, we knew that we were on film. Somebody would have to try and explain our eccentric incursion. I found a photocopying shop in Bethnal Green Road to duplicate a few sheets of my snapshots to go with the letter to Ballard. The young Asian girl who operated the machine, with no particular enthusiasm, came suddenly to life. The flats on the edge of the Royal Albert Dock, that was where she lived. What a mistake! The isolation. The lack of community. The drive to Gallions Reach retail park for a pint of milk. She had lived all her life in the buzz of Bethnal Green and then her family fell for the idea of a riverside apartment. Now she looked forward to coming to work, coming home.

Peter Ackroyd begins at source, the first trickle, Cotswold springs. He opens with a Gradgrinding deluge of facts: length, comparison with other rivers, number of bridges, average flow, velocity of current. Then moves rapidly to ‘river as metaphor’. So that the two tendencies, the empirical and the poetic, coexist, informing and challenging each other, striking examples found to confirm flights of fancy. And all the time he is walking, from limestone causeway to salt marshes, but keeping the accidents and epiphanies of these private excursions out of his narrative. The only vignette he offers from the long trudge is presented as a ‘river omen’, a superstition. ‘The present author has found on the river wall by Erith the following objects laid out in ritual fashion – a knife with a blue handle, with blood on the blade, a white T-shirt with bloodstains upon it, and a roll of Sellotape.’ Hikers, less sensitive to correspondences, taking the knife for fisherman’s kit, would moan, coming out of Erith onto the Crayford Marshes, about the tedious detour, those extra miles along the snaky Darent to the A206 and back, because there is no footbridge. How afternoons disappear, among huts, paddocks of travellers’ shaggy horses, driftwood fires, scrambler bikes and wavering golden beds of reeds.

My instinct was to follow the example of Patrick Wright, whose television journey, The River: The Thames in Our Time (1999), starts on the open sea, with the offshore forts, before making landfall on the Isle of Grain. Ackroyd believes that ‘the source is the place of enchantment, where the boundary between the visible and the invisible realms is to be found.’ Wright begins with what he knows, the North Kent coast. After pirate radio stations and a note about the remarkable number of denizens of the Isle of Sheppey who have fitted their houses with rolled steel joists, he opts for the potential apocalypse of the Richard Montgomery, an American Liberty ship which went down at the mouth of the Medway in 1944 with 1500 tons of explosives on board. And which might still, at any moment, take Sheerness off the map.

‘The journey towards the source is the journey backwards, away from human history,’ Ackroyd pronounces. But that is the journey I decide to take; the legend of Grain, from Hogarth’s drunken boat party, through Robert Hamer’s moody film The Long Memory (1952), to the climate camp protests at Kingsnorth, was history enough for me. Ackroyd provided my starting point: London Stone. This beacon, on the east bank of the Yantlet Creek, is said to mark the point at which the Thames merges with the North Sea. ‘From London Stone the ships set their course for the Nore lightship and the waves of the ocean. The song of the Thames has ended.’ Walking west, away from the creek, a wide-sky epic from Allhallows to Gravesend, then detouring around the Darent, cursing the repeated losses of the riverpath to private development, I reached Ballard’s Shepperton. I had done five days of my tramp before niggling doubt sent me back to Grain: the true pilgrimage, in the Ackroydian spirit, could begin only after touching the London Stone. I had stepped off from the wrong side of the creek, a stone’s throw from the symbolic beacon, but it wouldn’t do. ‘It is a mysterious, and an ambiguous, place,’ Ackroyd says. ‘Where does the river end and the sea begin?’ Crow Stone on the Essex shore and London Stone in Kent, an imaginary line joins them: this is all the information Ackroyd has to offer. How he reached the stone on his own expedition, and how he felt after so many miles, is not revealed. The Isle of Grain is omitted from the concluding section of his book, ‘An Alternative Topography’.

Studying the Ordnance Survey map for the Thames Estuary, I saw no good reason why I couldn’t walk the shore from the village of Grain, along Cockleshell Beach to the London Stone; or, failing that, down a track past Rose Court Farm to Grain Marsh. But maps are deceptive: they entice you with pure white space, little blue rivulets, a church with a tower, the promise of a shell-hunting foreshore; and then they hit you with tank traps, warning notices. military firing range keep out. Rusting metal poles looped with fresh barbed wire. A pebble shore protected by a sharp-angled Vorticist alphabet of obstructions, concrete blocks crusted with orange lichen. Wrecked cars turned on their backs and absorbed into nature. Foothpaths doubling back into aggregate dunes, darkly shadowed lakes and refuse dumps. Cattle, on strips of land between tricky creeks, might be part of a real farm or target practice. Across the marshes, the smokestacks of constantly belching power stations. When the coastal path failed, I tried the quiet back road: running up against ponds reserved for the angling club of Marconi Electronic Systems, the privileged fishermen of BAE Systems. A huddle of police cottages monitored access to North Level Marsh and the London Stone. private MOD road. residents and visitors to police cottages only. I backtracked, walked for hours – and eventually found myself, once more, on the wrong side of the Yantlet, near the colony of huts and holiday homes where my original walk started. The only stones to be found were a blunt obelisk commemorating the ‘completion of the Raising of the Thames Flood Defences between 1975-85’ and a compacted cairn, like the remains of a fireplace after a bomb blast, from which the plaque had been removed.

Children of the middle classes, friends of my own children, were getting their first experience of counter-terrorism, increased levels of state paranoia. Well-meaning, university-educated, self-elected friends of the planet were experiencing dawn raids, the trashed flat, seizure of books, papers, laptops. They were being arrested, processed, released or brought to trial. Sometimes before the contemplated action happened. They were pressured into becoming informers or stooges. In the age of retro-reality, they time-travelled to a 1960s mindset: tapped phones, spooks with cameras in a van across the road, infiltrators in every group, agents provocateurs heating up demonstrations. The fiercest reaction was initiated against opponents of the energy industry. This was where the crunch would surely come, and the politicians were taking no chances. If your face appeared in the movie of the Kingsnorth Climate Camp, the tribes opposing E.ON’s proposed coal-fired power station, you could expect a visit at your home address. Kent police, who held individual protesters arriving at the camp, often for more than an hour, while they were searched and photographed, defended their actions. Helicopters hovered throughout the night. Ministers responding to media criticism made much of the 70 officers who suffered injury during the battle of Grain. When the relevant documents were acquired under the Freedom of Information Act, it was revealed that only 12 of the injuries had any direct connection with the demonstration. Other war wounds included being ‘stung on the finger by a wasp’, succumbing to heatstroke, lower back pain from sitting too long in a car, nasty headaches and loose bowels.

I was trudging into Reading on my reverse Ackroyd walk, amused by the sight of a rowing eight so preoccupied by their furious activity that they wedged themselves in a thin channel cut through the ice, oars scraping plaintively and impotently, when I realised that I would have to return to the Yantlet Creek. The sighting of the London Stone across the narrow rivulet was an inadequate response, my walk through the salt marshes counted for nothing: touch was required. The unvisited obelisk, 54 km from London Bridge, marks the downstream limit of the authority of the City of London Corporation. The fact that it lodged on forbidden ground made it more appealing; if I failed in this quest, my expedition was rendered meaningless. True to the Ackroydian spirit, I pitched it pretty high: the stone had become the ultimate symbol, to reach it was to release the riverside reaches from a cloud of unknowing. Covert land piracy, lies supported by computer-generated evidence, the fantasies of swinish politicians.

Before parking in the village of Grain, beyond the unwelcoming pub named after William Hogarth’s rollicking peregrination of 1732, I drove to Kingsnorth through a landscape of roads too well made to be comfortable; private railways screened by poplars, chimneys, smooth silos, lagoons that looked like oil slicks and corrugated fields where silver lakes were exposed as sheets of crop-forcing plastic. When I left the car outside a yellow-signed café in a reservation of rubber-shredding sheds, the early morning lanes and grazing marshes were somehow bereft. E.ON UK was demonstrating all the standard strategies of exclusion: cameras, warnings, a yellow-tabard security gang manning checkpoints, and high fences around a nature reserve. The energy-brokers patronise wild birds, passerines, nesting avocets and rarely seen bobtailed godwits. If a bucolic cyclist weaves down this country lane, he will be wearing a large identity tag. Bill Oddie turned out, in 1989, to open the purpose-built freshwater pools of the Kingsnorth Nature Centre, which is closed and shuttered today, fence draped with prohibitions. NO PERSON SHALL DIG, TRAWL, DREDGE OR SEARCH. ENTRY TO THIS AREA IS A BREACH OF SECURITY AND WILL RENDER YOU LIABLE TO PROSECUTION UNDER THE SHIP AND PORT FACILITY (SECURITY) REGULATIONS. Agribiz fields, shielded from the Medway by an embankment, are edged with sunken tractor tyres, making shrines of the connection points to a hydraulic irrigation system. Wind sings in pylon cradles. The power station hums. Rabbits break cover. Skylarks tread air. Two tiny creatures I later identify as yellow wagtails bounce from the path. The death of J.G. Ballard was not unexpected, but it is still shocking and now a quality is missing from this place, and from London: the way that we assemble the evidence by which we know ourselves alters for ever. Acknowledging that a writer whose work we have come to rely on is out there – alive, active – sustains us. The non-specific headache, the dry throat, they are not entirely caused by the sickly electromagnetic field, white dust on the road.

Trying the track across Grain, I pass unmolested until I reach the row of police cottages. A large lady, interrupted in her domestic duties, accompanied by a scrawny youth in a vest, stands her ground. ‘Excuse me.’ I do. It’s not her fault. She is a manifestation of everything laid down between Yantlet and Medway. And I’m carrying a large rucksack and have a shirt wrapped around my head to keep off the sun. ‘You can’t come down here. Notices.’ I notice the spike of what I assume is the London Stone, frustratingly close, but I’m not permitted to pass. This woman knows nothing of the London Stone. ‘Go back the way you came.’ It’s an exquisite morning. After I detour around the cottages, to sit watching swans on a back channel, I am ready to abandon the mission. ‘It has not greatly changed in the last 2000 years,’ Ackroyd wrote. ‘For much of its course the river remains secluded and remote. It is still possible to walk along the path beside it, and see no one for many miles . . . It represents an escape from the world.’

When I returned, defeated, to the village of Grain, with its single shop, pub forbidden to wearers of muddy boots, I noticed a powerful woman in a bright blue singlet, hoop earrings, cigarette in mouth, swishing a Flymo one-handed around the ornaments in her front garden. She didn’t have gnomes. There were two shrunken policemen bookmarking her door, a helmeted constable with upraised truncheon and sadistically bland commander in cap, hands clasped behind his back.

But it wasn’t quite over. At an art event in a squatted charity mission in Hackney Wick, I bumped into the photographer Stephen Gill. I wondered if Stephen was up for a kayak voyage across the Yantlet. A week later, at 6.30 a.m., we dragged the inflatable, paddles, life-jackets, camera bags, down the track from All Hallows. The mouth of the Thames Estuary was choppy, white crests and a gusting east wind. The tide was out. Stephen noticed how the big ships, in an orderly queue, were riding at anchor in the deep channel, off Southend. The Yantlet Creek was a fast-flowing trickle, banked with mud. ‘Let’s go for it,’ I said. We dumped our kit and waded out, jumping from insecure foothold to foothold, to arrive on a sandy beach of Crusoe novelty. Not a footprint. Formal lines of seaweed, shell, plastic tidewrack, wildflower fringe. The London Stone on its slippery islet is a fossil-embossed obelisk perched on a plinth of stone and calcified wood. Bring your boat and the water parts. This weathered stone tooth is like the last surviving monument to a drowned city. There is a memorial aspect, but nobody can remember who or what is being celebrated. The higher the name on the obelisk, the more it is obliterated. It’s almost as if the sailors on a sinking raft carved their titles on the mast. Captain William Ian Pigott. Captain B.J. Sullivan. Rear-Admiral Horatio Thomas Austin. Lost witnesses to a walk that I could now resume in good heart.

I treated Gill to a major fry-up at the Kingsnorth café. The rubber-stripping operation had a yellow truck parked at the gate: HOGARTH TYRE SHREDDERS. An Ackroydian coincidence? The owner, proud of his heritage, admitted that the painter was his inspiration, the way he nailed the follies and foibles of a corrupt society. This man commuted to Grain, daily, from a home near the Chiswick roundabout. It was Hogarth’s Chiswick aspect that he was commemorating. The Grain part of the story had passed him by. ‘You learn something every day.’ The big tyres cost £1000 each. Minor flaws are easily smoothed over and the reconditioned jobs can be knocked out at £300 a pop.

After a farewell stroll on Grain, introducing Gill to an endlessly fascinating topography, we would return to London. Coming through the zone of dunes and solitary trees poking out of rubble islands, we paused at the perimeter fence of the military firing range. If these tidal marshes are so dangerous, why are cattle allowed to roam? Why do horses stick their inquisitive noses over gates that mark the ‘demolition boundary’? A kiosk, its window-flap rattling in the wind, has been perched on stilts. An unmanned forward observation post that looked like a portable toilet for the rock festival that would never come. The brand name was stamped, grey on grey, above the steel-shuttered window: OLYMPIC.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences