Lisa Woollett grew up on the Isle of Sheppey, at the mouth of the Thames. As a child she became fascinated by what the estuary had swallowed and what it coughed up; she searched the shingle below her parents’ house for fossils and shark’s teeth. In her 40 or more years of beachcombing and mudlarking since, she has been more likely to retrieve and hoard manmade flotsam, clay pipes and bits of pots; cereal-box toys and toothbrushes. She sifts and sorts them, and sometimes fashions them into starbursts of color, or boxes them in old typesetters’ cases, like exhibits in a museum of curiosities.
In some ways, as this absorbing memoir of shoreline collecting reveals, Woollett was born to this obsession. Her grandfather was a dustman, and back beyond that there were, among the Tolladays on her mother’s side, generations of scavengers, the lowest of the low of London’s raucous street life, scrounging for everything that was not chucked into the Thames, and selling it on.
Woollett has written two more practical guides to what can be found on the beach near her home in Cornwall, one for adults and one for children (she often goes fossicking with her daughter, 11 at the time of writing this book, who has become her fiercest competitor on the shingle, swapping some finds, keeping the best under her bed, out of reach). 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.
Woollett borrows something of the flavor of Peter Ackroyd’s teeming London histories and Iain Sinclair’s satiric urban rambling for this journey, but adds a different dimension to the city, sensing it not through its books or its marginal characters, but through its habits of disposal and recycling. As she dredges up coins and buttons she also uncovers the desperate lives of “toshers” and shoremen and the rag-and-bone families, men like her great-grandfather out collecting rubbish all day, while women and children raked through what came into the yard. Early Victorian London was essentially a zero-waste city; rags and paper and scrap metal all had ready buyers, oyster shells went to builders for hardcore, vegetable matter was collected as pig food and the ash that remained was bagged as fertiliser.
By the end of the 19th century, however, this cottage industry was overwhelmed, and more and more rubbish found its way downriver to the marshes. As Woollett’s chapters follow this progress, she also brings us closer to the present and the place where she fell to earth. Her parents moved out to Sheppey in the early 1970s when the great revolution in plastic disposable culture was really taking hold. The decades that follow are likely to be known by future mudlarks and paleontologists as the era of maximum detritus.
There is a kind of poignancy as well as a great deal of despair in this prospect. Woollett has a gift for bringing to life the strange borderlands of the foreshore, whether it is the tidal beaches of the Embankment or the weird hinterland of the estuary around Deadman’s Island where the shallow paupers’ graves are beginning to disinter the bones of the dead. She can’t help but look for something of a similar elegiac tone in some of the flotsam she finds. She stages and photographs the limbless deserters from vast armies of toy soldiers on the shingle, frames golf balls that have become indistinguishable from marine life, Monopoly houses and hotels resisting ruin. Our instinct — and hers to a degree — might be to humanize these finds, to see little flashes of nostalgia in these single-use relics as if they were our equivalent of the belt buckles of ancient warriors unearthed from the tundra. But there are just so many of them.
Woollett is very much alive to the irony of her finds, but also what they represent. In 1997 a container ship bound for New York pitched steeply and a cargo of 5m pieces of Lego was dumped in the sea off Land’s End. Many of the pieces were from sea-themed sets, divers’ flippers and life rafts; 20-odd years later, she and her daughter are still fishing these relics up from the shore. Some have been found in the gullets of seabirds and the gills of fish. They become emblematic for her of the world that we have created and that which we are destroying.
“What will survive of us is love,” Philip Larkin suggested hopefully.
In fact, what will survive of us, in Woollett’s compulsive telling, is more likely to be untold billions of plastic bottle tops and free-gift figurines, biro lids and party poppers and cassette tapes, coming and going on the eternal tide.
Rag and Bone: A Family History of What We’ve Thrown Away
By Lisa Woollett
Sept. 21 to Sept. 27 If word got out that you were planning a wedding during the Martial Law era, the “Committee for the improvement of Folk Customs” (改善民俗實踐會) might knock on your door. Each borough in Taipei had at least one “agent” who kept a pulse on community happenings. They would visit the family planning the wedding with a letter from the mayor, touting the benefits of being frugal and not wasting money on lavish ceremonies, even encouraging the families to donate money for scholarships. The authorities also discouraged them from hiring musicians and dancers, who were often loud and
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a way urban households can obtain healthy produce, while helping to build a more sustainable farming sector in Taiwan. King Hsin-i’s (金欣儀) transformation from advertising copywriter to social entrepreneur began in 2008, when she visited a rice farmer who practiced pesticide-free agriculture. “He explained that we have to leave space for other species. At the same time, I realized that while big companies have budgets to spread their messages, farmers have few chances to tell the public about their beautiful concepts,” she recalls. Inspired, she quit her job and traveled throughout rural Taiwan for a year. King went
Every day before she starts her shift at a government hospital in Singapore, Farah removes her hijab — the Islamic veil she has worn since a teenager. Although minority Muslim women can freely wear the hijab in most settings in Singapore, some professions bar the headscarf — and a recent case has triggered fresh debate on diversity and discrimination in the workplace. Now Farah has joined a growing number of Muslims — who account for about 15 percent of Singapore’s 4 million resident population — calling for the ban to end, with an online petition gathering more than 50,000 signatures. “They told me
If ever there was a reason to be inside on Mid-Autumn Festival, even for just an hour or so, while still celebrating the natural world, Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) has provided one with his first full-length work for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) as artistic director, Sounding Light (定光). Judging by the excerpt performed for the press last week, Cheng shows he can be just as minimalistic as his mentor, troupe founder Lin Hwai-min (林懷民), while still forging his own unique path. Just as he did with last year’s Lunar Halo (毛月亮), his final work as director of Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2), Cheng