Even river geeks will learn a lot from this book. Most terrifying is the unexploded ordnance in the river. An old cargo ship, the SS Richard Montgomery, sank just off Sheerness in 1944 with 1,400 tonnes of explosives. A government report from 1970 suggested an explosion on the boat — now known as the Doomsday Ship — would create a tsunami 13ft high. The chances are remote, apparently.
The one element I felt the book lacked was people: who are the characters beside the river? I am also not convinced it will have wide appeal. It reminds me of that trend a few years ago for books about tree-climbing; most sank with poor sales. Yet I hope it does succeed: it made even a capsized cynic like me feel more sentimental about the Thames. In fact, I am quite tempted to join Maiklem on the riverbed looking for treasure.
You learn a lot of fascinating stuff about the history of the Thames itself along the way, including the enjoyable factoid that, in 1814, the river froze so hard that someone led an elephant across it... This is a quirky and delightful read, wonderfully evocative of London's gloopy, ghost-haunted river
Maiklem’s storytelling shines when it’s focused tightly on her finds. There are two kinds of modern mudlark, she says: the hunters and the gatherers. She is one of the latter, interested in picking up whatever objects the river chooses to show her. She collects everyday trifles like pins and bottle tops that might not fetch much at auction but offer a precious glimpse into how ordinary people once lived. Her imagined histories for her special finds read like waterborne fairy-stories, a hard kernel of truth clothed in mythical finery....Maiklem has also fallen prey to modern publishing’s insistence on inserting memoir into all non-fiction, no matter how relevant it may or may not be to the subject at hand. As a narrator of her own expeditions, she is a pleasant companion to the reader, although the accounts of her trips to the foreshore shift into the present tense in a way that jars with the rest of her narrative. Alongside, we are treated to plenty of childhood reminiscences that don’t always do much to move the book forward.
Maiklem’s description of the fog is worthy of Dickens or Joseph Conrad, “a great white cloud of damp river breath, thick and consuming, filling ears and covering eyes, curling down throats and settling on lungs”. That is brilliant. If only Maiklem could find some debris in “the filthy slush” worthy of her dedication.
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... 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.
A custodian of the past, Maiklem’s relation to the life of the river is personal rather than scientific. She sees the Thames as the home of her forebears and the medium of their messages... There is a great deal to learn from these pages, not least the insight that finding lost things is the best way of losing yourself. It is, above all, her wisdom that makes Lara Maiklem such restful company.
The occasional grim passage aside, this is a lovely, lyrical, gently meandering book, filled with fascinating diversions and detail. Maiklem has become obsessed with finding a complete medieval pilgrim badge – one of the pewter decorations bought by pilgrims at religious shrines and then, some theorise, thrown into the river to give thanks for a safe return. She has said that she will give up mudlarking when she finds one. I don’t believe her for a second.
"It is the tides that make mudlarking in London so unique." If, like me, you are the kind of person who walks along shorelines with eyes cast down, you will thrill to this enthralling and evocative history of London and its people, told through objects found on the banks of the Thames. For 15 years, mudlark extraordinaire Lara Maiklem has been walking the Thames foreshore at all times of day and night, and in all seasons, peering into the mud and gravel for items discarded by generations of Londoners. Neolithic flints, Roman hair pins, Medieval shoe buckles, Tudor buttons, Georgian clay pipes, 17th-century love tokens, discarded war medals and human bones are among the treasures she has rescued from the river during her fossicking missions. Beautifully threading her own story through the history of the Thames, she uses these finds to bring the ordinary lives of long-forgotten Londoners to life. Rather wonderfully, the jacket design makes use of a metal type once discarded into the river by its inventor: the leading book-binder of his generation, one Thomas Cobden-Sanderson (but that's yet another fascinating story...). Given that the loos in The Bookseller offices have a panoramic view of the foreshore below the Albert Embankment, I intend to press this book on all my colleagues, and many other people besides.