The flotsam tells stories

Mudlarking, Lara Maiklem, Bloomsbury.

‘I get down on my hands and knees, as close as I can to the foreshore, and pick a small patch of dark grey mud to analyse.’ If that sounds like your idea of fun, then Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking is for you. She further notes that the Thames estuary is a ‘wonderful sight’: ‘mile upon mile of smooth sludge’.

In need of time away from a ‘soul-destroying’ job and a ‘failing relationship’ Maiklem discovered the joys of mudlarking, collecting all manner of things that wash up on the river’s mudflats, or, more accurately, that are exposed by low tides, a hobby that used to be a profession. Mudlarks used to be equated with thieves. They patrolled the mud around ships at the docks hoping to steal whatever might fall off ships, or even steal building supplies while the ship was still being built, though scavenger is probably a more appropriate term. These days you need a permit, and Maiklem describes a surprisingly vibrant community of mudlarks in London who are not afraid of getting their hands dirty and getting up at all hours to synchronise with the tides, and who have their favourite haunts and particular niches.

She describes the river as its own piece of wilderness in the centre of the city. After descending a ladder to the mudflats, she says, you enter a different world, and ascending again you re-enter the noisy twenty first century.

It begins to sound almost romantic until you read about all the rubbish that inundates the Thames when floods overflow the sewer system, even though the river has been cleaner that it has been for centuries, and especially since 1957, the Thames’s nadir, when it was declared biologically dead.

All the flotsam that gets into the river tells stories. And Maiklem relays them here, in her first book, which flows seemingly as effortlessly as the Thames itself. It helps that she is mudlarking on the Thames, a river with a thousand years and more of rich human history. The book includes kings and paupers, shop owners and criminals, not to mention porpoises and whales. She tells of the printer who threw thousands of pieces of metal type, which he considered parts of a perfect design (and which features on the cover of her book), into the river (in order to thwart his former business partner from profiting from them). Maiklem finds a comma.

What else does she find? Pins, nails, pottery pieces, beads, buckles, buttons, Hindu statues, coins, witches’ bottles, smokers’ pipes, ship-building paraphernalia, pilgrim badges, knife handles, shoes, earrings, wedding rings, cufflinks, musket and cannon balls, dice, dominoes, toys, Roman tiles, Tudor pot handles, a cat’s skull, animal bones, antlers, part of a human skull. Some she takes home, others are so plentiful it’s pointless. A city river is an astonishing trove, if you know where to look, and, importantly, how to look.