The drowned world. When Sir Joseph Bazalgette built the Victoria Embankment, he "placed chains upon the river". But, warns Will Self, London's resurgent waters will have the final revenge

Liquid History: the Thames through time

Stephen Croad <em>Batsford, 208pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0713

The Thames tends to be dismissed by Londoners of all stripes. I well remember taking my children on one of the big bateaux-mouches that ply the river from Westminster Pier down to Greenwich and being both repelled and fascinated when the boatman who was doing the touristic commentary - this Christopher Wren, that Richard Rogers - began to deliver a jeremiad against the Docklands developments of the past two decades that sizzled with Luddite rancour. Choked with emotion, he described how even when he was a child (he can't have been much more than 50) the Thames was jostling with working boats, a flotilla floating the produce of an empire into the mighty maw of the city. But now there were only off-the-peg yuppie flats and anonymous office space, for which the presence of the river was merely a few picturesque quid per square foot on their leasehold value. I confess, when we moored at the Millennium Dome I felt too depressed to put a tip in his cap.

And it's the loss of the Thames's industry that this lovingly assembled archive of riparian photographs captures so well. Following the river from the London Stone at Staines (the westerly boundary of the ancient jurisdiction of the City of London) to the London Stone in Yantlet Creek off the Isle of Grain (its easterly boundary), the pages of this book flicker to form a zoetrope, which jerkily resurrects bygone London far more effectively than any other set of images I can recall seeing.

Modern Londoners care only for the Thames in so far as they live north or south of it. This estate agents' view of the world has permeated so far into the popular consciousness that people iron out the river's bends for the purposes of route finding. Even cabbies will undulate along the embankment from the south side of Waterloo Bridge to my home in Stockwell, even though there's a road that goes there directly. I blame the embankment myself. Before the river was contained in this vast stone trough it spilled out all over the place, smoothing out the contours of a city which was far more sedimentary and low-lying.

Yes, I blame Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who not only embanked the river, but also had the temerity to build three bridges (Hammersmith, Putney and Battersea) across it. Before the age of Bazalgette and his fellow late-Victorian visionaries, the Thames was a semi-permeable barrier between the polis and the natural world. Granted it was also an open sewer, but you have only to look at these photographs of the central London riverfront before the embankment, to appreciate how lively and tumultuous it must have been. Boatyards, ferries, quays, markets, warehouses - all jostling for access to the water. The rookeries of old London may have been torn down a half-century earlier, but right up to the turn of the 20th century medievalism roosted on the foreshore. Truly, the Corporation had it right when it inscribed Bazalgette's memorial - which stands appropriately on the Victoria Embankment - with the inscription "he placed chains on the river".

The fishermen and bargemen of the upper river knew what was coming early on. In 1811, the City Corporation built the first "pond lock" at Teddington, and the local people tried to destroy it. Thereafter, the lock keeper was allowed "a blunderbuss with bayonet attached thereto" to fend off the Luddites. The Teddington locks (there were many more) placed a limit on the tidal reach of the river, and from then on the working character ebbed away, as dock after dock shut down, until all that was left was a smattering of bulk container ports out in the estuary. An estuary that's also a zone of profound ignorance for the modern Londoner.

Some years ago I realised that although I was a native Londoner (born in the old Charing Cross Hospital, a site now undistinguished by Terry Farrell's hideous station redevelopment), I'd never been to the mouth of the Thames. In the days when our own littoral was more significant that the Spanish one, most Londoners would at least have taken a day trip to Southend, but now the point where the very river that runs through their own city meets the sea is - I would imagine - terra incognita for the vast majority. Dickens knew the Thames estuary well, and set many scenes in his novels between Gravesend and the Isle of Grain on the south side of the river.

Indeed, the literature and art of London's past are heavily irrigated by its river. Where would our conception of historic London be without Pope and Dryden dabbling out at Marble Hill, Carlyle and Whistler playing Pooh sticks in Chelsea, Dottie Wordsworth sauntering over Westminster Bridge, Sam Johnson taking a ferryboat from the Swan jetty, and Turner spying out the Fighting Temeraire from the tavern Prospect of Whitby? Yet in the modern era, it is extremely hard to see the river running through our concrete prose. With the valiant exception of Iain Sinclair, and the odd engagement of J G Ballard out at Shepperton, the modern Thames has been as securely papered over as the rest of the capital's ancient waterways. The only recent riverine cultural innovation that comes to mind is the Tate-to-Tate hydrofoil which, with its Damien Hirst-spotted livery, looks like the fag end of the last millennium forging on forlornly into this one.

No, give me the Thames of the past, the river that this book brings so vividly to life. With photographs taken as long ago as the 1840s and coming up to the present day, what a wealth of messing about in boats there is to enjoy. Swim-headed and stem-headed Thames barges drawn up on the shore disgorge their cargos; fish are offloaded at Billingsgate; bananas at Wapping; coal and timber at Limehouse. Where once thousands of men trundled tea and tapioca from the ships moored at Butler's Wharf, now fat futures traders trough at Terence Conran's Le Pont de la Tour restaurant, staring out across a Thames reduced to the status of a historical appendix at the offices of News International on the far shore.

Still, I wager Father Thames will have the last and loudest laugh. For more than a century it has been understood that the Thames estuary was dipping down while the sea was rising up. The Thames Barrier is only the latest in a long line of flood defences, one that is likely to be inundated itself within the next half-century. Lives have been lost through drowning in London before - and they will be again. In his apocalyptic novel of 1962 The Drowned World, Ballard envisaged a London sunk beneath the muggy brown waters of a resurgent Thames. There's a moral there for the likes of Bazalgette: you may be able to place chains upon the river, but you can't put a girdle about the earth.

Will Self's latest novel, Dorian, is out in paperback from Penguin on 26 June