Review: Liquid History and The Narrow Sea

Water, water everywhere... Andrew Motion on two evocations of our national obsession from Stephen Croad and Peter Unwin

Liquid History: The Thames through Time by Stephen Croad 208pp, English Heritage/ Batsford, £15.99 The Narrow Sea: Barrier, Bridge and Gateway to the World - The History of the English Channel by Peter Unwin 320pp, Review, £18.99

Geography plays its part in every debate about Englishness. Not just political geography but physical geography - and each understood in terms of each other, thus: Eurosceptics are super-conscious of themselves as islanders; north/south dividers are afficionados of landscape as well as wealth distribution. In this respect, Englishness and water are especially hard to separate. We spend an inordinate amount of time wondering whether or not it might fall from the sky. Our literature returns time and again to the idea that we are set in a silver sea. Our history and the navy are inextricable. Rivers run through our imaginations like veins through a body. Our libraries are awash with books on boats, currents, tides, seas - you name it.

Here are two more, one handsome and evocative, the other decent and sensible. In the first, Liquid History, Stephen Croad, who used to be head of the architectural record at the National Monuments Board, has gathered two hundred-odd photographs from the NMB archive to follow the Thames as it runs "within the ancient limits of the jurisdiction of the City of London". (That's the London Stone at Staines, and the London Stone at Yantlet Creek.)

The bulk of the pictures come from four sources: the great collection amassed by Henry Taunt in the middle and late 19th century; others assembled more or less simultaneously by the commercial firm of York and Son; others taken by the amateur photographer SW Rawlings, who worked for the Port of London Authority from 1921 to 1965; and others again from the record kept by Paul Barkshire of the changes to the waterfront during the 1990s.

The result is touching, fascinating, melancholy, and occasionally heartening. It is also, and incidentally, a welcome act of flag-waving for the NMB, an undervalued resource which since its foundation in 1941 has gathered together 10m photographs and other archive items relating to England's architecture and archaeology.

It's difficult not to give pride of place to Taunt, to whom every Thames-lover owes a witting or unwitting debt for his A New Map of the River Thames, first published in 1872. In the opening picture of Liquid History he's on top form: his photograph shows a group of 18 men (well, 17 and a boy) from the Dyers' Company, posed round the Staines Stone in about 1883. They are swan-uppers, some in stripy jerseys, some in dark blue, with a single swan's feather stuck in their caps, and in their hands a 12ft (or so) pole with a metal bird-grabbing crook at the end. Their expressions are a wonderful mixture of dignity and delight - proving they take their work utterly seriously, and are proud of their calling, but at the same time feel conscious of its oddity. Behind them the river is glassy, the trees misty, and their boat so enigmatic they might each be Arthur about to drift to Avalon.

All old photographs have an element of sadness, of course; we can't look at them without thinking how things have changed and people have died. Taunt understood this, which is why he allows for commemoration as well as celebration. In his slightly earlier picture from the bank at Walton on Thames, for instance, he captures a corner of the water-meadows which have now all-but disappeared - and shows an almost tropically lush and drowsy deliciousness. Similarly, in his picture of the Angler's Hotel at Walton, taken in the 1880s, he captures the bustle of pleasure as well as work, in a way which silently emphasises the transitoriness of both: the fisherman in the prow of his punt, straw-hatted and tweed-coated, is gazing downriver as if he is looking along the barrel of his own life.

Inevitably the mood changes as the pictures follow the Thames through the heart of London then out towards the estuary. Here the great monuments (the grand houses, the public buildings) have generally proved more durable, and on the paths and docksides the sense of renewal is more insistent. (Even when the renewal means a complete change of function, such as we see in the before-and-after photographs of St Mary Overy's Wharf, Southwark, where the derelict warehouses of the 1980s were transformed in the space of a few years into chic offices and apartments.)

Inevitably, too, the weight of interest is differently spread: from the arcane to the familiar, from the delicate to the massive, from the quaintly business-like to the solidly industrial. But for all that, the sense of melancholy survives - and comes back with a vengeance when the heart of London slips away, and we float past Barking Creek and beyond. The gigantic Ford works at Dagenham, which stopped producing cars last year, the beached and rusting barges at Greenhythe, St Clement's Church at West Thurrock, stranded in the middle of nowhere for centuries, but now dwarfed by the vast Procter & Gamble factory . . . Everything goes, these pictures say on page after page. The river wanders at its own sweet will, connecting the pursuit of something with the reality of nothing.

Peter Unwin is less poetical about things, and more specific. His book presents itself as "The history of the English Channel", and so it is - in the sense that it takes a stroll through British history, seizing on every significant event that has something to do with that crowded, notorious, much-travelled waterway. The advantage of his thoroughly no-nonsense approach to things is that we are indeed reminded of how large a part "the narrow sea" has played in our "island story". Beginning with ancient geological upheavals, and steaming steadily forwards past the Romans, the Vikings and so on, through to the tunnel and the refugee crisis of our own day, he makes us feel that virtually every political decision ever taken and every policy ever made, has involved channel-hopping of one kind or another.

Predictably enough, the Armada, the traffic to and from the trenches in the first world war, the retreat from Dunkirk, and D-Day all get special attention. But while Unwin is never less than conscientious in his account, the old-fashioned approach means that we miss the flavour of his subject: we are reminded of the facts, told repeatedly that the channel is a bridge as well as a barrier, but seldom feel the spray in our face. There are too many "Have you been listening at the back?"-type links, and too much prose that is simply leaden: "We come now to the story of Joan of Arc, who in a meteoric two-year career turned the history of the Hundred Years War upside-down;" "Charles's departure was followed by nine years of republican rule, seven of them dominated by the personality of Oliver Cromwell."

This is surprising, given that Unwin obviously feels passionately about his subject. Or rather, it seems especially strange given the strength of feelings which underlie it - feelings which emerge most clearly in the closing pages when he wags his finger at "a solipsistic and increasingly dangerous United States" and opens his arms to "a bigger, more powerful, more closely integrated European Union". It makes one suspect there's another topic here, waiting to get out - something to do with Europeanness rather than a particular facet of Englishness. Next time, maybe.

· Andrew Motion's novel The Invention of Dr Cake is published by Faber.

Andrew Motion

The GuardianTramp

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