In this beguiling blend of memoir, nature writing and social history, Woollett-the granddaughter of a dustman, and descendant of other family members who have made a living from the things we discard-traces the intertwined stories of our rubbish, and of the consumption that gives rise to it. A mudlarker and beachcomber, she explores shores from the Thames and its estuary to Cornwall where she now lives, picking up buttons, pipes, combs, bottles, Biro lids and other plastic debris, while reflecting on all the things we mindlessly jettison. Now 2nd July 2020.
Woollett has now left London for Cornwall, and a somewhat disjointed finale sees her picking up Lego bricks and micro-plastic beads on the sand there. Her environmental worries are well handled; but without the earlier geographical framework the narrative loses its urgency. This kind of book aims to meld disparate elements into a whole — family and urban history, nature writing, psychogeography and ecology — but it doesn’t quite come off here.
The trouble with writing a history shaped around one’s own ramblings, though, is that the result can be, well, rambling. For the most part, Rag and Bone plods along amiably, telling the stories behind debris Woollett has found. But when she switches to an angrier tone at the book’s close it feels somewhat abrupt — although her descriptions of how plastic and e-waste are destroying the earth are chilling.
This book has the more poetic apparatus of a quest. For the bulk of it, over the course of a year, she travels along the Thames shoreline, pocketing fragments that might offer clues to the kinds of lives her forebears lived, telling the stories of the things people threw away, before throwing away became the great national pastime.
Her working-class family story is a rarely heard one; they leave so little trace (she discovers via the means of a child’s death certificate that her third great-grandmother, Ellen Tolladay, was illiterate). Woollett’s warmth, wit and gorgeously descriptive language lulls you like a gentle punt on a summer day.
But these narrative tributaries always return to the slow flow of her main story, heading inexorably towards the sea, and the final couple of chapters are a tough read, every plastic-strewn beach damning evidence of the horrible toll our chuck-away culture is taking on the world’s oceans.