Mudlark by Lara Maiklem

September 9th, 2020

When I read about Mudlark in the New Yorker, I immediately knew I wanted to read it: a memoir about finding stuff in the mud along the Thames foreshore? Yes please! And now that I’ve read it, I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed it as much as I expected to, which is to say, a whole lot. In Mudlark Lara Maiklem writes about the tidal Thames from west to east, talking about her own experiences finding things along the Thames and also talking about her own personal history and family history, and about history more generally. She talks about things she’s found and things others have found, and about how those found objects are glimpses into the era in which they were made and used. Some of the riverine history in this book was familiar to me, but it was still enjoyable (I will always love reading about/thinking about the “frost fairs” held when the Thames in central London froze over completely), and there was some new-to-me stuff as well—I don’t think I knew there was a manmade beach by the Tower of London until 1971, and I didn’t know about the annual draw off of the river either, when one set of weirs/locks is left open while another set is closed, to “allow the stretch of water between them to rise and fall naturally with the tides,” which exposes a whole lot of riverbed. And it was cool to read the story of Doves Type, which I didn’t know at all.

I really like the way Maiklem writes, the way she captures the sounds/sights/smells of the landscapes she’s moving through, whether that’s the train ride she takes at the very beginning of the book (“There is an unwritten rule of silence on the early-morning London commute and barely a murmur can be heard, just the rustle of newspapers and the high-pitched squeal of the rails as we lurch and sway towards the city”) or the foreshore at Rotherhithe (“The bones of old ships, river-slimed and rotting, lie exposed on top of the mud and emerge from the shingle and sand”). The river, even in the middle of the city, is “a wild brooding place with a wide-open sky”, and Maiklem describes Tilbury like this: “This Essex stretch of the Thames is a strange, ugly-beautiful place of industrial sprawl and tangled electricity pylons against wide skies that can quickly lower and turn angry.”

Also pleasing are all the descriptions of the things Maiklem and others have found in the Thames: clay pipes, glass bottles, bottle stoppers, coins, rings, hazelnuts preserved in peat, bones, toys, pieces of terracotta “from a Roman central heating system”, Tudor money boxes from theatres, old leather shoes or pieces of them, a pocket sundial, pins, “pewter medieval pilgrim badges,” bricks, “a compressed lump of eighty-year-old newspaper, sodden and yellowed, but still readable,” and more.

I’ve made a point of walking along the Thames at least a little bit on most if not all of my trips to London, and it was super-fun to read about places I’ve been to or walked past, from the foreshore down the steps just next to the Tate Modern to the Thames Barrier to the hill by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the view from which Maiklem describes like this: “From the top of the hill, I could see the old and the new layered over each other, Wren’s Royal Naval College underlining the towers of Canary Wharf in the distance, and—just—the long, lazy loop of the river meandering its way around the Isle of Dogs.” Reading the book made me want to look back at pictures I’ve taken in London: the Thames foreshore, the Thames Barrier, some barrels, wet stones on the foreshore, Wapping Old Stairs, The Prospect of Whitby (which Maiklem mentions in the book), another foreshore view, the view from that hill in Greenwich.

4 Responses to “Mudlark by Lara Maiklem”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Have you read To The River by Olivia Laing?

  2. Heather Says:

    No, I have a copy but haven’t read it yet! I’m guessing I should?

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    Caveat: my book club discussions have made me realize that I really enjoy non-linear writing. Apparently this is not true of everyone! So if you appreciate non-linear narration a la Virginia Woolf, and especially if you hold a fascination for Virginia Woolf (the person, separate from her writing), it’s wonderful.

  4. Heather Says:

    I also enjoy non-linear writing, and have enjoyed other things by Olivia Laing, so yeah, I think I will probably like it :)

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