Thursday, November 17, 2016
Strangers on the shore
Last of my current clutch of book reviews is a new book about London. It’s about mudlarking, the wonderful pastime of recovering objects from the banks of the Thames. But it’s also about the history of London, and the fragmentary nature of the mudlark’s finds says something too about the fragmentary nature of historical evidence, about the way the past comes back to us in bits – but bits that can shine with the vividness of jewels...
Ted Sandling, London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures
With a foreword by Iain Sinclair
Published by Frances Lincoln
Once or twice I’ve walked down one of the sets of steps by the River Thames in London, to take a photograph from the shore. I’ve always felt a bit uneasy down there (Should I really be there? Will I be apprehended by a River Policeman or some imagined embankment beadle?). But I’ve also wondered what it would be like to be a mudlark, walking slowly along the shore and scavenging the historical detritus – old clay pipe stems, bits of pottery, colourful chunks of glass, the odd Victorian lemonade bottle – that gathers there.
Now I know. Ted Sandling’s enchanting new book reveals what it’s like to be a mudlark, and tells stories from London’s history, based on the fragments he’s found down on the shore. It’s a winning way to look at history, juxtaposing photographs of the finds with narratives about their origin or use or context. Sandling makes bottle stoppers speak to us about the history of London’s consumption of mineral water; bits of glass reveal an international industry embracing Asia, the Levant, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic; an ink bottle has things to tell us about the history of literacy; pins provide evidence of early mass production; and so on.
There’s a very special immediacy about the connection with history. You pick up a bit of clay pipe stem. It’s one of the most common things to find on the shore, but you may be the first person to handle it since its owner threw it away, broken and useless, 200 years ago. It’s very intimate, too, this connection. That original user put his lips to that stem; another grasped the wine glass of which you’re holding a fragment; yet another curled his wig with those curlers.
Some of the fragments animate very specific stories. A bit of glass marked ‘ECKHAM’ and some bits of letters that look like ‘Manwaring’ lead to the origins of a South London pickle manufacturer. ‘BATTERS’, ‘ENGLAN’ and a bit of ‘Morgan’ is evidence of a firm making patent ceramic crucibles (first in Wales, then in Battersea, then back in Wales again). They were the state of the art then, and they still exist as manufacturers of crucibles – and, now, of parts for jet engines too.
There are even bits of buildings washed up by the tide. A chunk of masonry from the old Palace of Westminster that burned down in 1834 is a prize exhibit. Delft wall and floor tiles are no less fascinating. And I learned, in the course of a passage about a wine bottle neck, that bottles as well as buildings had string courses. Such things, the objects themselves and the short accounts of them, do not lose from being fragments – visually, they are stunning, and historically they exemplify how the past comes to us in fragments that we have to piece together.
Sandling’s enthusiasm for his material is infectious. He can luxuriate in the coloured decoration on a tile, the glow of a piece of glass, the texture of anything he holds. He’s good at recreating the surprise of discovery and the strangeness of some of the finds – some of them, after all, have taken long journeys to get here: the river both is the essence of London and is something flowing into it from outside. Even what were everyday objects – a pipe bowl in the shape of a horse’s hoof, a Tudor money box – can seem strange until their stories are filled in, and Sandling is good at getting this sense of strangeness, as well as giving us the background information we need to understand the objects better. He recognises, too, that odd, uncertain feeling that I felt when stepping on to the mixture of sand, gravel, and mud beside the Thames. Nearly everyone feels it, he says, when they first go down there. Bottles and buttons and bear heads (yes) and writers and mudlarks too, we are all strangers on the shore.