Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 21 Jul 2020

Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem

I often find that books about doing things – travelling, epic bicycle rides, climbing mountains, sailing – turn out to interest me far less than I thought would be the case. I think there are two reasons for this. First, because I am fundamentally lazy and physical activity in and of itself doesn’t interest me; and second, because informative as some of these books may be, they are not always all that well written.

I was delighted to find, then, that Mudlarking, Lara Maiklem’s book about foraging the Thames foreshore for antiquities, wholly defied my expectations. I found it both fascinating and extremely well-written.

Mudlarking has some very slight similarities with other recent ‘activity memoirs’ such as H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, in that the activity that the book is about begins to some degree as therapy. In Maiklem’s case, respite from a hated and soul-destroying job and solace following a collapsed relationship.

The muddy, wind-scoured foreshores of the Thames at low-tide offer a retreat from the world and Maiklem begins to haunt this unprepossessing semi-liquid terrain without it seems any great sense of purpose – at least initially. But what begins as retreat offers a gateway into the past, its people and its objects.

Mudlarking, I suppose, is a little like the strange sub-world of metal detectorists (Maiklem would deny this vociferously) in that unless you are one of the initiated they are worlds you probably know little or nothing about. They may be a bit weird but they are essentially harmless pursuits and may even have the positive benefit of adding to the historical record.

Or so I thought. But of course it isn’t that simple. Metal detecting can be environmentally destructive, and result in great loss to the historical record. The same can also be true of mudlarking, although steps have been taken to avoid this and since the 70s it has to some degree been a regulated activity with a permit scheme overseen by the Society of Thames Mudlarks. The Society works closely with both the Museum of London (dedicated to London’s history and archaeology) and the Portable Antiquities Scheme to ensure that finds are correctly identified, appropriately preserved and added to the databases of finds of historical significance.

But anyway, none of that is really the point. What Maiklem does in Mudlarking is bring the past alive with often breathtaking immediacy – you aren’t there on the stinking, muddy foreshore of the tidal Thames but like her you feel history prickling beneath your fingertips. All through Mudlarking, as Maiklem describes finding Saxon coins and Roman brooches and medieval bottles, lost children’s toys, Victorian detritus, endless clay pipes, handmade pins (Tudor and Elizabethan costume, such as neck ruffs, required hundreds of pins and they wash up on the Thames embankments in drifts, each handmade, each different), a feeling, a quotation, an idea was nagging away at me. Eventually I tracked it down to Alan Bennett’s History Boys. He is talking about reading but the quotation is still apposite:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

It’s that last bit – a hand has come out and taken yours. For what Maiklem communicates superbly on page after page is that sense of hands reaching out of the darkness of history, the human connection offered by these objects. A medieval pilgrim’s token conjures up an exhausted woman from whose frozen fingers the token slips as she crosses the ramshackle bridge over the Thames. A leather scabbard casing from a Roman legionary’s short-sword conjures a lonely, embittered imperial soldier far from home and on route to his next posting. (Perhaps he was Turkish: the more distant the posting, the less likely were Rome’s legionnaires to rebel or desert.) A heap of seed agates, perhaps lost from a sack torn in transit, perhaps rejects swept straight into the river along with all the other rubbish from the floor of a medieval workshop.

Mudlarking has been read on BBC Radio 4 and seems to have met with universal acclaim wherever it has been reviewed – and deservedly so.

Reviewing it in The Guardian Frances Wilson commended the book for having “none of the self-conscious sensibility that defines contemporary nature writing”. I agree. Too much contemporary nature writing seems over-written, its prose strenuous and intrusive. Mudlarking, however, is done with elegance and the lightest of touches. She also says that Maiklem’s wisdom makes her “restful company” and I agree again. It left me better-informed – but more importantly, it also left me feeling both rested and refreshed. What more could you want. Try it – even if it doesn’t immediately seem your kind of subject, I bet you’ll be surprised.


Alun Severn

July 2020