65: Mudlarking a thousand years of class war
Hello. A warm welcome to Border Crossing issue #65.
I hope you’re well. Thank you so much for continuing to support my writing, I hugely appreciate it.
This time, I write about the class divide, a dramatised 1980s heist and three hundred years of Thames mud.
Gig plug: we’re down to the last handful of tickets for Jim Bob’s UK summer shows in Leeds, Nottingham, Bristol and Brighton. As usual I’m on piano and singing in Jim’s band.
Brighton friends, thank you very much if you came down to our evening with Dougald Hine. It was thrilling to have a full — and engaged — room for the first Border Crossing Live. I was very enriched by the whole conversation. I’ll write properly later about ideas and thinking that Dougald and the audience shared. In that kind of company, I’m running to keep up, which is deeply exhilarating.
Looks like we’ll do Border Crossing Live #2 in April, with a sweet, diverse lineup of poets and singers. Watch this space.
Wendy Erskine’s second short story collection Dance Move just came out in paperback. Madeleine Knowles interviewed Erskine for nb. magazine. I don’t know if it’s a new interview, or came out last year for the original publication.
This could be excellent and it’s free: Northern Digital Storytelling Festival is a program of online talks and panels around immersive creativity, running 20th-31st March. Book for each event but it doesn’t cost anything.
Scottish linguist Lennie Pennie writes beautifully for The Herald on gender neutral language.
Charlie Peverett’s wonderful Up With The Birds online early morning birdsong meet-up returns for another spring season.
The ongoing controversy around Bruce Springsteen’s use of dynamic ticket pricing has brought down his leading, longest-running fansite, Backstreets, which has been around since 1980. Here’s the sad editorial by Christopher Phillips, himself in post since 1998.
Charlotte Wells’ acclaimed debut feature film Aftersun is on Mubi and winning a lot of awards. I was particularly taken by its use of music. There is one moment I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a film, where a familiar track (Blur’s ‘Tender’) is played, then slows down while it’s playing, then continues to play at the new, significantly slower, speed. Can you think of any other example of this on film? I really can’t.
Later, a Queen classic sheds its instrumental backing, leaving Freddie singing (with drastically changed reverb) over other music and noises, which entirely changes the sense of the song. It would be fascinating to know the logistics of clearing these tracks and getting permission to treat them in this way. I contemplated writing a full-length thing on Aftersun’s use of music. Beyond these moments it’s a careful blend of Oliver Coates’ minimal original score with more woozy, scene-setting 1990s pop and indie. But instead (and better) here’s Francis Blagburn’s interview with music supervisor Lucy Bright and composer Coates, in Crack magazine. The conversation even has some insight into the music clearing process, though I would’ve liked more detail.
Mike Sacks interviews Beavis & Butthead and King Of The Hill creator Mike Judge for The New Yorker.
Never mind the empty veg shelves in our supermarkets, Australia is suffering from a full-on potato chip shortage. Utterly horrifying.
Mudlarking a thousand years of class war
People share photos of empty supermarket shelves.
“Let them eat turnips!” cries Therese Coffey, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in February 2023.
The media scrambles to find something to blame that’s not Brexit, for all the missing tomatoes and cucumbers. It’s probably Jeremy Corbyn’s fault, or trans people.
In the deep background, maybe a silhouette, or an ink drawing in an old children’s novel: the historical figure of the mudlark. Knee-deep in trash-strewn mud and shit on a riverbank, scavenging for some trinket, some item of value. Typically, it’s a tidal river cutting through the innards of a city — the Thames, obviously — after the industrial revolution has taken hold. A mushrooming population exponentially increases the chance that, among all the spreading human detritus, there will be enough half-precious objects, washed up and buried in the mudbank by the ebb and flow of water, to maybe uncover something at low tide worth selling or bartering for food.
From the eighteenth century onwards, mudlarking was one way for desperately poor people to survive, scratching a livelihood out of the stink, in an era without a welfare state or trade unions. It was mostly done by children and old people. The word smells Dickensian. By the late nineteenth century there was also widespread ‘grubbing’ — looking for items of value down drains — and ‘toshing’ — the same but down inside the new sewage tunnels. The main character in Terry Pratchett’s late novel Dodger is a tosher. Mudlarking proliferated into, and right through, the Victorian era, yet another dark truth behind the buttoned up facade of Empire, on into the twentieth century. It became embedded in popular culture, before fading out again after the second world war, as the nation got a bit kinder. Though it never vanished completely.
Today: more food banks than branches of McDonalds and that was even before the cost-of-living crisis and fuel rip-off stripped our meagre reserves. The richest thousand people in Britain doubled their wealth during Covid. Scarlet fever is back. Bird flu rampant. More people on strike to protect their livelihoods than in decades.
The phrase ‘larking about’ is (probably) rooted in the word ‘skylarking’, referring to sailors clambering about on the rigging of their boats — not as part of their sailor work but for a laugh, wrestling and chasing and messing around. This is itself (probably) rooted in its contrast to the earlier phrase ‘mudlarking’. Possibly the word ‘larrikin’, for lad, or rowdy thug, or gang member, was also rooted in larking. If we lean much further back in time, there’s the Old Norse word ‘leika’ that means to play, so maybe that’s where it comes from. It’s interesting that the notion of ‘play’, messing about, rather than harsh, desperate labour, would attach itself to this trade at the very bottom end of Georgian and Victorian society.
There was even a loose sense at the time that mudlarkers were outside the system, rather than necessarily below it. Like the ‘vagrants’ who’d stay at a workhouse only for 48 hours, swapping a day’s hard labour for food and board, then wandering on, as opposed to the ‘inmates’ in the same workhouse, stuck there for months at a time. It’s fascinating that ‘vagrants’ and ‘inmates’ were kept strictly separate. There’s a hint of subversive self-reliance, even freedom, in the picking through of tidal grime. But don’t let me romanticise it: the riverbank really was as gross as you’d imagine. Corpses weren’t rare back then, including abandoned babies. Human and animal poop everywhere. All those horses — I’m not even touching on London’s vast industry built around horse manure.
Later, a tidier, performative version of the mudlark child emerges, still dirt poor but less actual digging, which became attached to the same word and cleansed it a bit, on its journey towards harmless fun: children would dance around on the riverbank begging, while passers-by threw down coins, which they’d squelch through the mud to pick up.
And now it’s… well, a modern-day Thames hobby, focused on dredging up items of historic interest, rather than stuff you sell for supper. There are books about it, you need a permit and you can join organised groups of tourists doing it. Or it shows up in the culture, you know, like The Detectorists or whatever.
Today we’ve made pastimes and art of such things that historically were tools for survival. I wonder what will happen to our cleaned up versions, as the safety nets erode and rot away and desperate human need returns to the foreground.
Obviously I write about mudlarking in the past. Yet outside the global north (and inside it) thousands (probably millions) of people in cities scrape by on modern equivalents of that exact same activity. Danny Boyle’s slumdog millionaire is a mudlark. The world’s stinking trash heaps are crawling with children. My own comfortable, progressive bubble of a home town is a place where refugee kids in the care of the British Home Office have vanished. Simply vanished into a horror film underworld of trafficking and grooming and crime gangs. Over two-hundred of them, lost.
Before our gig last week, I’d asked Dougald Hine what England felt like to him now, arriving here on the Eurostar from his home in small-town Sweden and travelling around the country on his book tour. He said: yeah, ragged around the edges.
In a recent BBC crime drama series, The Gold, writer Neil Forsyth uses mudlarking as a neat, poetic (if geographically skewiff) allegory to emphasise the sheer depth of entrenchment of the class divide, back through British history. The show is about the aftermath of the Brink’s-Mat gold bullion robbery, from a warehouse near Heathrow Airport in November 1983. It’s on the iPlayer. One of Forsyth’s preoccupations, soaked through the script, is the symbiotic relationship between the criminal working class and the ruling upper class establishment. Swathes of dialogue pick and prod at this big theme, this great chip on the shoulder, even as couples fight, or thieves plot, or cops eat dinner, still they feel an urge to extemporise a rapidly changing London and the continuity of control of the people at the top. That’s not to say it’s not a very fun cop show — the acting is terrific. It’s a bit like if The Sweeney tried to make itself into Tinker Tailor (and as I type this I realise that’s yet another class-based comparison). There’s a whole chunk of subplot directly connecting money laundering on vast scale to the regeneration of London Docklands. I’m convinced. And I admit, dwelling on the vile establishment that stretches back a thousand years is right up my alley. There’s even a great bit pointing out that the Freemasons are a much older organisation than the Metropolitan Police, so the one corrupting the other can’t really be a shock.
ANYWAY, back to the allegory: this one working class main character reminisces about his mum and her friends, who used to mudlark on the Thames out east, when they were young. He says that one day they took a trip out west to the Chelsea section of riverbank, to dig around there instead, and were blown away to uncover a far higher quality of loot. Coins instead of pottery and bones. It doesn’t quite work logically, but — vividly — what he’s talking about is how far back through deep time the class power structure builds and maintains its citadels.
It’s in the mud.
Land ownership is all that matters, where that land meets the water. In Nick Hayes’ now already canonical Book Of Trespass he describes the strange wrinkles of English law that permit you to travel down a river on a canoe, yet forbid you to step ashore.
Cleverly, the Royal Family owns all coastal lands reclaimed from the sea.
Sooner or later, poverty comes down to land ownership.
Having declared war on super-rich landowners who’ve abused the law to criminalise, and therefore control (and monetise) the ancient right to wild camp, for example on Dartmoor, the excellent Right To Roam activists and Nick Hayes also pop up in Grayson Perry’s new Channel Four series about Englishness. Now, I want with all my heart to believe that, regardless his comfortable ‘national treasure’ status, despite the Knighthood, lovely, naughty Grayson Perry still sincerely pokes hard at that establishment. That this piece of telly was intended to be something worthwhile for the cause. But the show is so fully locked on to Perry’s laconic, benign tone that it basically renders everything a bit of eccentric fun. A great genius of British establishment, as compared to, say, the old European aristocracies that couldn’t avoid revolutions, is that it swallows whole that which might threaten it.
It doesn’t even touch the sides. When the industrial revolution threatened to wrench it apart, the newly rich northern factory owners suddenly found they could level up their kids, take a cross-generation walk into the aristocracy (or at least the bottom rung of it) via the public school system. That networking opportunity was the whole point. Fast-forward and you’ll find the Saudi princes horseracing with the Queen and those great thieves of Glasnost, the Russian oligarchs funding the Conservative Party. The establishment willingly repaints itself, even as it fights tooth and nail to prevent such inclusivity across the beautiful island nation it holds by the throat.
I didn’t know much about the Brink’s-Mat gold bullion robbery. Apparently they were trying to steal a couple of million of Spanish currency (this was pre-Euro) but couldn’t get into the main vault, then accidentally stumbled upon twenty-six million pounds worth of gold bars, sitting in a corridor. In today’s money it wouldn’t be far off a hundred million quid, nicked all in one go. This was such a vast stash, it impacted the global gold market, so that a week after stealing it, it had increased in value by a further million pounds, as the price of gold freaked out.
Like, that framed Banksy painting that shredded itself in the auction room the moment it was purchased. The wrecked remains of the painting inside their booby-trapped frame instantly greatly increased in value, because the stunt made it so famous.
Wealth is imaginary, poverty is real. Underlined three times!
There are many threads to pull from the Brink’s-Mat robbery that aren’t covered in Neil Forsyth’s series. There’s a story on the edge that I particularly like. This wasn’t mentioned in the show: about a month after the robbery, while it’s still big news, in Austria, six guys are caught by police carrying several gold bars, with matching stamps and numbers to the stolen Brink’s-Mat gold. But when their gold is assessed, it turns out not to be gold bullion at all, just gold-plated something else. They’re apparently about to scam a criminal buyer with homemade fake Brink’s-Mat haul. Cunning, except they get caught. At least that’s what the story appears to be. Given the layers of lies, mystery and death that even today, forty years on, surround that iconic robbery, pretty much anything may've been going on. I read another conspiracy theory that claims only half the gold ever existed. It was always a fraudulent, falsely accounted hoard — and the ‘official’, ‘legal’ gold industry needed to get rid of this non-existent half, to correct the numbers. So they had the whole lot stolen. This doesn’t feel likely, though it is true that less than half the stolen bullion was ever recovered. Experts agree most of the hoard found its way back into the world’s legal supply (in other words, it was successfully laundered).
Like Nick Hayes, the writer John Higgs casually calls it something like the ‘Norman Continuity Empire’. Or at least, he does in conversation, I can’t remember if he’s put that down in a book. Continuity is the key word.
At least in the 1980s when a rich Tory prick told us what to eat, they had to go on television with their snotty children and eat it themselves. They led by example. Soft eggs and mad cow riddled beef burgers. So where’s the news footage of Coffey, all dressed up, with a napkin stuffed down her blouse, chomping down on boiled turnips?
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Last handful of tickets for Jim Bob’s UK summer shows in Leeds, Nottingham, Bristol and Brighton. As usual I’m playing piano and singing in Jim’s band.
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Please look after yourself and your people.
All my love, as always.