Stream of national consciousness


Lara Maiklem, Bloomsbury, 2019

The 1950 B-film The Mudlark tells of an urchin who ekes out an unpleasant existence scavenging the slimy Thames foreshore. He finds a coin bearing the head of Queen Victoria, and creeps into Windsor Castle to see the sequestered sovereign for himself. Through sheer goodhearted pluck, he succeeds where sophisticated politicians have failed, appealing to the Queen’s feelings and reawakening her sense of public duty. Modern mudlarking is a hobby rather than a necessity, but chance finds of apparently insignificant items can convey powerful emotions.

Over 23 squelchy years, Lara Maiklem has amassed a battered and stained collection of everyday things turned talismanic by time, and immersion. The Thames is the longest archaeological site in the world, running from the obelisk at Teddington marking the limit of the tidal Thames to its battered cousins on the Yantlet Line between Southend and Hoo. She has prospected as much of this frequently feculent, sometimes toxic Troy as she can, often on hands and knees, blasted by easterlies, disoriented in fogs, or almost cut off by tides. She has crossed from Middlesex to Surrey dry-shod, pried among the ribs of broken ships, seen Traitor’s Gate from water-level, and considered the course of riparian history from Greenwich, ‘where time begins at the Prime Meridian’.

She disdains metal-detecting as disrespectfully predatory. Her trove nevertheless encompasses amber, garnets, pieces of Londinium hypocaust, beads, tiles, boar tusks, gold lace-ends, handmade bricks, nit-combs, thimbles, buckled shoes, shards of bellarmines and clay pipes, hand-blown bottles, toy soldiers, and letters of the drowned Dove typeface, tipped into the Thames by its high-minded creator in 1913 to avoid its use on lesser texts (she has perhaps presumptuously used it for chapter headers). Other finds are too redolent to be retrievable – recent wedding rings, or the heavy box labelled ‘Remains of the Late…’Another time, she watched the ‘peaceful, angelic’ body of a girl sailing gracefully seawards. 

Henry Mayhew appears inevitably, documenting a sad cadre of coal-picking and rope-thieving teenagers, and even sadder ‘old women of the lowest grade’. As in other books about the Thames, there are stock characters – homesick Romans, Viking marauders, Tudor theatre-goers, Georgian watermen, Pip from Great Expectations – plus Henry VIII, Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, and Captain Kidd. But this author augments the Thamesian tally, summoning old Londoners out of silty suspension from a discarded Victoria Cross or a pot-lid. There are other mudlarking books, but this one offers engaging insight into an amphibian ambience of strongly-marked characters, semi-secret exploits and outlandish theories. Maiklem is not alone in resorting to the river for salvation as much as salvage – ‘It healed my broken heart’. Centuries earlier, Edmund Spenser similarly ‘walkt forth to ease my payne / Along the shoare of silver streaming Themmes’.

The author is attuned – glimpsing faces in walls, sensing ‘ghostly essences’, especially of her boat-builder ancestors, seeing the river almost as a deity requiring propitiation. The key to spotting objects, she reflects, is ‘to relax and look through the surface’ (a prosthetic eye once stared startlingly back). But she also tells how to dry out old iron, and contributes knowledgably to antiquarian archives. Today’s Society of Mudlarks is a learned and unexpectedly exclusionary body infinitely far from Mayhew-era connotations.

The foreshore is falling away, as seas rise, and the city subsides. The ‘sacred river’ classicised by Turner and commemorated by Peter Ackroyd, repository of Englishness, medieval pilgrims’ tokens, modern Hindu statuettes, and peace-seeking suicides, is also a sewer. The river is cleaner than it used to be, but after rain, all outfalls ooze cotton buds, nappies, condoms, tampons, medical waste, and gobbets of fat. The sediments that hold sentiment leach arsenic, mercury and cadmium. Today’s coins are pinchbeck, fizzling after a few years, oxidising Elizabeth II into anonymity – while interloping mussels and crabs devastate native species.

The further downriver, the more evident England’s erosion; recent trash at Tilbury ‘tells a story of overconsumption and wanton waste’. Vast mounds of soiled, single-use junk befit a recent past whose voices cry ‘loud and angry’ on the estuarial wind. It is hard to imagine such stuff ever feeling evocative, but while we hope for transmutation we can follow Lara Maiklem’s footprints down to the tideline and back.

This review first appeared in The Spectator, and is reproduced with acknowledgements

Territorial waters

The Way to the Sea

Caroline Crampton, Granta, £16.99

The Frayed Atlantic Edge

David Gange, William Collins, £18.99

Confluence of the Thames and the Medway, by J. M. W. Turner

Seawater pulses through the veins of our islands, the tang of open water reaching to the furthest points inland. Insularity has always been our destiny, determining daily life and deepest meanings even before Albion loomed out of the haze. Early Britons took to boats from necessity, but also from sheer curiosity about what lay behind horizons, whether markets for goods, countries for converting or lands of eternal youth.

These two books compare the Kingdom’s coastline in its vastness and variety, and show the marked contrast between ambiguous east and tumultuous west. Their longitudes are different, but both authors share a passion for re-orienting mainstream histories and making us look to our littorals.

Caroline Crampton’s source-to-sea exploration of the Thames starts in Gloucestershire, at the unexpectedly indeterminate spot where the river seeps forth from Stygian springs to start its 215-mile descent through the English imagination. The river gathers significance and strength as it passes William Morris’s Kelmscott, Oxford’s ‘lost causes’, Paul Nash’s Wittenham, Wind in the Willows country, Stanley Spencer’s resurrections, brooding Windsor, Magna Carta’s meadows, dissolved abbeys and Cardinal Wolsey’s hubristic Hampton Court, before even reaching London. There, it gains innumerable new tributaries before escaping out the Essex side, to flow through ever-widening flats until somewhere beyond Shoeburyness, where brackishness finally turns full salt.

The author’s parents owned a yacht in the Medway and many of her youthful days were spent between places and states of mind, channel-finding, watching ships and seeing the banks change, tacking and thinking, yawing and yarning. She saw the Docklands ‘regenerated’ and learned indignantly of earlier displacements of superfluous communities. Her Thames is tainted with secret shames, its course a palimpsest of lingering class resentments, its estuary a repository of industrial toxins, unmarked graves and unexploded bombs. But she also finds treasures, such as aquamarine 5th-century glassware retrieved from sucking ooze, discovers fascinating stories, and recalls enchanted hours when sea, shores and sky combined in brilliant tableaux. 

Duntulm in the Inner Hebrides. Picture: Derek Turner

Like his chosen coast, David Gange’s book is harder-edged. He resorts courageously to a kayak, entrusting this cockleshell to the rigours of the Atlantic, from Out Stack to Land’s End. By day, he combats cross-currents around the feet of Scylla-like cliffs, creeps awestruck through sea-arches reminiscent of cathedrals, is glared at by gannets, meets whales uncomfortably close to and tries not to turn turtle, until his shoulders and torso ache with tiredness. At nights, he reads and rests beside desolate tidelines or casually ascends some summit, almost as if he believes he might wake to the sight of Avalon. Orcadian navigators, Irish saints and Welsh pilgrims paddle out from his pages, taking us to reaches that were roads when London was a rumour.

He conjures up cruelty and ‘dark histories’. This is an intensely political book, ruing the ‘urban, inland ascendancy’ that has made the far west culturally as well as geographically marginal, in the interests of commerce and the name of modernity.

But there is also uncomplicated beauty, and wonderful descriptions of elemental moments when survival depends on skill and the boat becomes the author’s homeland. His sea is stormy, but it is also ‘a great heart’, its islands wombs as much as tombs. Strewing poems in his wake, he finds keening sadness along these frayed fringes, and causes for righteous anger, but also optimism in a world wanting landfall – new ways of living and of viewing the future, with more space for small communities and individual freedom. As he struggles to stay afloat, he dreams of a time when the wave-battered west is less a land of legend than a launch-pad into immensity.

This review first appeared in Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

A million acres, six thousand years

Roman Canal, Lincolnshire, by Peter De Wint

The Fens – Discovering England’s Hidden Depths

Francis Pryor, Head of Zeus, £25

‘Very flat, Norfolk’ drawls a character in Noel Coward’s Private Lives – a supercilious condemnation of another character, and by inference all eastern England. Francis Pryor proves that while the Fens may be level, their gentle undulations and cubist planes hold stories as absorbing as anywhere.

Mr Pryor is well-known as excavator and interpreter of the massive prehistoric site at Flag Fen near Peterborough, and from television’s Time Team. In childhood the Fens were a tantalising grey-blue smudge on his horizons – then when he was studying archaeology at Cambridge, an intriguingly unknown landscape conveniently close to town. He has come to know the Fens from the inside out, and the surface down. For him, this is literally hands-on history – a deeply felt discovery of a million underestimated acres extending from Lincolnshire to Suffolk.

The author’s father scanned RAF photographs for V1 launch sites, and his son applies comparable care to the study of silts – sometimes almost causing accidents by swerving into the side of the road to fossick in drainage ditch upcast. He adores the Bronze Age, when the Fens were well-populated and highly-organised – the stains and traces of banks, boats, bodies, boundaries, drove-ways, fish-traps, middens, and sluices proof of complex adaptations to this environment where land was drier rather than dry. Through phosphate analysis, we can even tell where cow manure splattered thousands of years ago, and suddenly we smell the Age in imagination.

The Fens, with their huge and numinous firmaments, have always been a ritual landscape – perhaps once with many monuments like ‘Seahenge’, the upturned oak surrounded by a ring of 55 closely-set posts, salvaged providentially in 1989 from the shrinking shore at Holmes-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. The British Museum’s famous Witham Shield shows that for Celts fenland rivers were mystical as well as tribal frontiers. Ely Cathedral, Croyland Abbey, the Boston Stump and many other superb edifices were raised on long-hallowed ground, their soaring stone a defiance of uncertain earth. These attest to ancient prosperity; Boston and King’s Lynn once rivalled London, and 12th-century Peterborough was nicknamed ‘Gildenburgh’, city of gold.

Boudicca ruled roundabout, Hereward the Wake legendarily resisted the Normans around Ely, and feudalism never became firmly established. Mr Pryor speculates that local traditions of independence may help explain the later appeal of puritanism, Parliamentarianism and modern intellectual enquiry to both ‘Slodgers’ (southern fenlanders) and ‘Yellowbellies’ (their Lincolnshire equivalents).

Dissolution opened monastic estates to entrepreneurs, and encouraged agricultural improvements, turning piecemeal efforts to keep water out of particular fields into a vast geometry of reclaimed ‘dearbought’ land, and half-tamed waterways (the Ouse Washes are visible from space). Fenlanders resisted, and the author empathises, but he also finds this titanic engineering inspiring. In some places, he observes, people seem insignificant, but not here, because without humans there would be no fens.

But ‘improvements’ have had adverse consequences, symbolised by the Holme Fen Post near Peterborough, inserted with its top at ground level in 1848, but now standing over 13 feet above, thanks to the drainage of Whittlesey Mere, formerly England’s largest lake. Shrinkage and drying of primordial peats are causing carbon release, soil degradation and erosion, increasing flood risk, and wildlife loss – while rising sea-levels menace huge tracts of prime farmland, and Boston, Spalding and Wisbech. The author watches an overflying Lancaster bomber from nearby RAF Coningsby, and ponders today’s threats.

The Fens are trembling on history’s brink, but then they always have. For now at least, they retain much of their brooding, enigmatic character – and those who wish to understand their unique importance can now call on an articulate and avuncular guide.

This review first appeared in Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

Living with Leviathan

The Last Whalers, Doug Bock Clark, Little Brown, 2019

Our relations with cetaceans have always been charged with danger and delight, represented by the extremes of Revelation’s “beast out of the sea”, and the frescoed dolphin-riders of Pompeii. Rare, huge, and unknowable, whales have traditionally been omens, or metaphors for improbability – “very like a whale”, Hamlet chaffs the cloud-watching Polonius. They were long chased by daring Basques, Icelanders and Inuit, and prized whenever washed up – they were declared “Fishes Royal” by Edward II – but then they met eighteenth century modernity. 

Soon they were harried almost to extinction by fleets from New and old England, France, Holland and Norway, seeking baleen for corsets and chimney-brushes, oil to light the lamps of the Age of Reason, and ambergris to fix its perfumes. Taxonomized by Linnaeus in 1758, the sperm whale came increasingly to Occidental attentions, its great head a-swim with spermaceti, its skin bearing scars of suckers of Kraken-like giant squid bested in black gulfs. Whaling museums from Hull to Nantucket display sad skeletons and scrimshaw, naïve scenes inked onto sperm teeth by off-watch hands. (A sperm whale from Holderness is mentioned in Moby Dick.)

As petroleum superseded spermaceti, Westerners started to see whales through warmer eyes. These were no cold fish but big-brained, long-lived, social mammals, and furthermore they ‘sang’ across seas of time and space. Pressure built to preserve them from modern Ahabs with unchivalrous high-tech harpoons. 1982’s moratorium on commercial whaling made exceptions for aboriginal whalers scattered around the blue planet from the Faroes to Alaska, who took whales in small numbers using ancient methods. These amphibious autochthons included the Lamalerans of Indonesia’s Lembata, an island so remote even Indonesians call it “The Land Left Behind”. 

Lamalerans made landfall on Lembata around 1522, even as Magellan was adventuring the archipelago – and commenced a hazardous, laborious dependency on the bounteous fruits of the Suva Sea. They hunted dolphins, rays, sharks, and sperm whales from lashless lug téna boats built without nails, copying the craft that had carried The Ancestors, incorporating old timbers, investing every rope with significance. Christianity came late, existing illogically alongside animism – the Mass of Lost Souls abutting the Ige Gerek, the Calling of Whales by the hereditary Lords of the Land. Lamaleran women still clean, cook, kill fowl, trek to market and, in rare spare moments, weave immemorial motifs into itak cloths, and men butcher, lop lianas, raise houses, careen keels, or occasionally war, while keeping “burning eyes” oceanward, and ears attuned for the shout “Baleo!” (the hunt is on). 

The author first visited Lamalera in 2011. Most outsiders move on swiftly, bored waiting for whales to blow, but he returned, and learned the language. Some quixotic side was captured by this community on the literal and metaphorical edge, as its anchors dragged, and its youngsters drifted off dismasted to jobs in the city, exchanging harpoons for mobiles, and sarongs for Hello Kitty T-shirts. He shows us this outpost in all its aspects, a village simultaneously enhaloed and smelling of fish. He relishes queasy details – messes of rays’ brains, fish-eye snacks – and the plangently attenuated, like the Spear of the Dragon which promised victory in battle, now a rusty walking-stick. 

His unjaded Lamalerans are more admirable than Westerners – angst-haunted, he aspires to be “a little less American” – still thinking in cycles and generations, seeing benefits as gifts from gods rather than human rights. He badly wants to believe community can be reconciled with opportunity, and conservationists can come to see very human folkways as wholly natural evolutions. To him, the jets overflying the archipelago emblematise uncertain escape, looking like harpoons with rope contrails – projectiles launched into space without anyone knowing where they’ll land. 

Vanishing venery, howsoever humanised or hymned, will not be universally appealing, but the real threats to whales lie far beyond The Land Left Behind. European bestiarists believed whales exhaled sweet odours to attract fish – now sometimes their great gapes attract shopping bags instead, dooming noble beasts to squalid ends, like the one found in March in the Philippines with 40 kilogrammes of plastic balled in its guts. No brave whaler could ever be so dirtily profligate. 

For a little longer, those few who persist in pursuing Physeter macrocephalus have the ultimate antidote to modern anomie, in moments when all pull together, or leap onto the backs of 60-ton titans, whose flukes flail death. Sometimes Indonesian Actæons go down for good, becoming phyloplankton, or phosphorescence on the face of waters mirroring the homeward-pointing Southern Cross and the star-showers of Cetus (named after the sea-beast beheaded by Perseus). Unrecovered bodies are interred symbolically, represented by nautiluses, suitably ancient-shaped, fragile but shining, like Jonah emerging from the abyss as eternal example. The Last Whalers should serve similarly as a tribute to this tribe, and all the others, foundering in or riding out the “typhoon of life”.

This review first appeared in the 27th April issue of The Spectator, and is reproduced with permission