Two Unknown Women with a Baby and Dog

Mudlarks and Oyster Shell Ghosts

posted in explaining myself

Mudlarks and Oyster Shell Ghosts

Mudlarks were people, frequently children, who scavenged along the Thames foreshore in the olden days. It was a way of making money. It could be pretty dangerous, not least because the Thames was full of raw sewage, the guts of fish and animals discarded in food preparation, glass, metal shards from the industries that went by the shore. These days the Thames is much cleaner, though I wouldn’t drink it. The glass and the metal has been worn by tides and scraping up against sand and stones and anybody caught tossing animal waste after food preparation into the river will most likely find themselves in court. These days mudlarks are people like me who just like scuttling about on the foreshore and scraping about to a depth of no more than 7.5 cm (I’m licenced to lark) and taking home great handfuls of clay pipe shards and old oyster shells.

I liked history at school, I liked the way it told me the story of how things happened. I thought, like many people do, that the chronology that I learned was the truth. But it was really a list of things that happened that could be attached to people who had their names recorded. On reflection the other people, and that is millions of people, never got a look in. But all of those people had parents (even if only in the baldest of biological terms), they had jobs, they ate and drank stuff, committed crimes, were victims, got rich, got poor, got sick and died, got better and led happy and blameless lives, but the only place you ever saw them recorded were in the court or church records.

However, if you go down to the river at low tide, near London Bridge, you can find the ghosts of many people; lots of animal bones and oyster shells that could only have got there because someone put them there. These are the leavings of the fundamentals of day to day life, along with pottery shards and the clay pipes. Each and every one of those things went through the hands of people who were never recorded but little traces of them remain. Not all jetsam is a problem. Some jetsam is all that will remain of the majority of us. That’s a sobering thought.

At Christmas 2018 I was given a box of negatives that had been found in a house clearance and I decided to print them on the oyster shells, discarded things on discarded things.