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