By William Boyd
I live about 200 yards from the Thames at Chelsea and walk by the river most days and, most days, cross it twice. It’s impossible for me to think of London unshaped by this great river, its ever-changing aspect and the way it entirely
affects my consideration of the place where I live.
The Thames in London is prodigiously tidal – it can experience a fall or rise of water of 20 feet or more – and consequently the river view is ever-changing. On a hot summer day, at low tide, the Thames can look like the
Limpopo in time of drought – all parched mudbanks and shallow, turbid water. On other days, the river is brimming at the edge of the Embankment, the moored boats riding at the same level as the passing cars.
It was this near-daily proximity to the river that inspired me to write my London novel – my Thames novel – Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009). On my walks by the river I often spotted the neat Targa-31 boats of London’s Thames river police – the Marine Policing Unit (MPU) – based at Wapping beyond Tower Bridge. I did some research and discovered that the MPU, on average, removes some 60 corpses a year from the river. Sixty! I thought: that’s more than one a week. Who were these unfortunates? There are a very few murder victims, quite a number of suicides but most are accidents, people caught out by the rising tide or else by the force of the current. Still, sixty dead bodies a year in the river – that’s positively Dickensian.
And so the novel was born.