There is a revival of interest in that shadowy figure HV Morton, whose travel books and essays exploring British topography and culture were popular in the early 20th-century, and played a significant role in shaping English sensibilities around landscape and national character. Peter Ackroyd and Sukhdev Sandhu both acknowledge this influence, and Sandhu's book is a modern rendering of Morton's 1926 book The Nights of London. There the similarities end. Thames: Sacred River is a compendium of facts and evocations of the great river. Sandhu's deft essays in Night Haunts, by contrast, are like fireworks in the night sky, brilliantly illuminating, quickly resolved, and presciently concluded.
It is unlikely that anybody else has, or ever will, gather in one place everything known about the Thames – etymological, mythological, archaeological, historical, and enjoyably scatological – in quite the way Ackroyd has. In this sense the work is definitive. Yet for once the author's flamboyant personality is nowhere in evidence; it is as if we have the notebooks and drafts, but not the authorial voice.
There is a great accumulation of facts, yet the eagerly sought mythopoeic coincidences or correspondences seem forced or unsupported: the psycho-geographical energies are all spent. The author dispenses with the narrative structure of the companionate journey common to most river histories, and presents his material as a cornucopia of treats and insights delivered from all directions.
Fortunately, Ackroyd is still in love with language, and the Thames has a language of its own, from the ancient, frequently bastardised names of its tributaries, creeks and reaches to the plosive obscenities of Victorian watermen. As he observes, the Thames is a river of two distinct halves, like English culture itself: the upper river is bucolic, arcadian, a place for the dream-fugue and childhood idyll. The tidal, estuarine Thames is mercantile, at the historic heart of an often cruel empire, corrupt, brooding - its wide skies and indifferent waters leading to fears of the dissolution of self. Each makes its own weather.
Ackroyd is attracted to the macabre and the morbid. Hence there is much emphasis on human sacrifice, martyrdom, accident or war. In one great storm in 1703, more than 18,000 men died when their boats were wrecked. The Thames was then crowded with boats of commerce, transport and pleasure: a permanent maritime traffic jam which continued over centuries, to within living memory. As a child at the height of the post-war commercial boom, I frequently accompanied my father collecting timber from the docks in a lorry. The river was crowded with ships, tugs and lighters; the warehouses, cranes, funnels and masts darkened the sky. This was the "Piranesian frenzy" of the Pool of London, as the historian Sir John Summerson once described it.
"The self-obsessed meanderings of psycho-geographic writing" are criticised and eschewed in Night Haunts. Sandhu's book results from an inspired commission by the public art agency Artangel. The author embraces a social poetics intellectually indebted to documentary reportage, particularly that associated with travels into unknown London. In a series of night-time forays, he shares confidences with cab drivers, bargees, sewer "flushers", cleaners, police and other night workers, as they toil or keep watch in the shadows of the restless city.
He is a sympathetic listener, but does not leave his own urban concerns or political beliefs at the door. These essays are thoughtful engagements with reality, not just exercises in topographical style. While many see the metropolis today as a global financial centre, where dreams of unlimited accumulation are embodied in brilliantly lit towers, Sandhu explores life below. Large swathes of poverty and unhappiness are revealed, and inequalities thrown into sharp relief, in the "anti-modernity of the night".
The concluding essay describes a visit to Tyburn Convent near Oxford Street, where a group of nuns prays for the city's souls each evening in the service of the Night Adoration. "Prayer is the true language of the night," Sandhu surmises at the end of his nocturnal pilgrimage. Prayer or encomium? For those who love cities, but especially for those who remain entranced by London and its great river, there is no statement of belief in the magic of place quite as heartfelt as that of Rat in The Wind in the Willows when he cleaves to his stretch of riverbank: "It's my world, and I don't want any other." While Ackroyd covers every inch of the territory and lifts every stone, Sandhu lets the ghosts speak.
Ken Worpole's 'Dockers & Detectives' will be re-published in January by Five Leaves
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies