As an estuary dweller and the daughter of a Londoner the River Thames is a part of me. Just gazing out across at it and smelling the cockle heavy, salted air revives me. My mother spent the bulk of her childhood in the City, in a street running parallel with Cannon Street and knew that area like the back of her hand, excursions across the river being common place. That she was aware of mudlarks and mudlarking was made known to me when as a small child I delighted in a song by a singing group called The Mudlarks. The song was called ‘Lollipop’ and was perfect for a small child with its vacuous, repetitive lyric of ‘Lollipop, lollipop, oooooh lolly lolly lolly’ So when I curiously asked what mudlarks were, she told me. I understood right away. Or I thought I did. I believed that I was a mudlark then. But I wasn’t. I was a beach comber. I still am given the opportunity when my deranged spine behaves for long enough. I’m also a history nerd who gets excited about the tangibility of history. Put me a few feet away from the bones of Richard III and I go light headed and tingly. Let me hold something from the past and I’m catapulted to a potential past life. So I get this book.
However I’m not going to attempt to conventionally review it. Elizabeth Lowry did such a fantastic job of that for the Wall Street Journal. I’m just going to respond to it. I love searching the seashore for shells, stones and glass. It’s not mudlarking though. I’m not even sure if it’s beach combing really. I think I’ll call it sandlarking. There is plenty of mud on the estuary but it’s like quicksand and has devoured many a flip flop. it frightened me a bit when I was younger because it was like some sci fi creature from the depths coming to suck me into a dark, suffocating oblivion. Now I’m just too old and unsteady to fight it! But it feels fantastic on your skin. Very uplifting. But I love the search at the sandy, water's edge. When you get your eye in and nothing else matters. You can cover amazing lengths of shore without realising it. I found a glass screw or stopper and I found a section of a glass container where I could read some letters. It’s thrilling. Stones too, they take on a whole different appearance when they’re wet and look like gemstones until they dry. I'd love for Ms. Maiklem to divulge the whereabouts of the cornelian and agates she mentions. I once found a piece of rose quartz at a beach on Martha’s Vineyard and I was ecstatic for days! Shells on the estuary are plentiful, cockles, mussels, oyster, some razor shells, whelks, venus shells.
But I loved reading this book and I loved the dual meaning of the title because I can relate to the healing power of a river when you are feeling lost. But I love reading about people and their passions. For when someone is passionate about something their eloquence flows uninhibited and it can be infectious. I defy anyone reading this book not to surely contemplate trying a little mudlarking for themselves.
But I also get that indescribable joy at finding something special, meaningful and unique. I am imagining Lara Maiklem’s house as overflowing with artefacts that tell centuries of the social history of the Thames. But I think the book also reminds us of how in our arrogant and thoughtless ‘progress’ we have created social mystery rather than social history as we abuse the river with ‘fatbergs’ and our lazy disposal habits and ‘laboursaving’ pursuits. I mean what is a wet wipe but a pre soaked piece of toilet paper? The water can tell us the truth. Never underestimate a river.
I also loved the fact that one seemingly simple find could sent this author into a maelstrom of research that yielded such potent facts abut people, a person and their lives. It's fascinating and inspiring. And testament to how tangential life can be if we let it and we run with it. So, yes, this is a book about mudlarking but it also tells a subliminal story about life and how we live it.
I borrowed this book from my library but it’s not enough. I need to own a copy.