Spirits of water
The voices of the River Dart

The urban wild

Nocturne in Silver and Blue by James McNeill Whistler

After Long Covid, veterinary and family-life interruptions, I'd like to return to my series of posts recommending favourite books on the subject of water. We've had a similar series on sea and coastal tales a while back, so this time the focus is on rivers and other inland waters.

All of the texts discussed so far have been set, largely, in the countryside or the desert wilderness, so today let's look at two interesting books dedicated to urban waterways: Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem, set on the banks of the River Thames as it passes through London, and Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler, set among the canals of Birmingham.

Hidden Nature and Mudlarking

A mudlark, the Cambridge Dictionary explains, is "someone who searches the mud near rivers trying to find valuable or interesting objects." Although we tend to think of mudlarks as figures out of the 18th and 19th centuries, there are still dedicated mudlarks today, and Lara Maiklem is one of them: irresistibly drawn to the tidal portion of the Thames, scouring the mud to find treasures, curiosities, and cast-offs full of stories about the past. Maiklem explains her unusual vocation like this:

Nocturne in Blue and Gold by James McNeill Whistler"It amazes me how many people don't realise the river in central London is tidal. I  hear them comment on it as they pause at the river wall above me while I am mudlarking below. Even friends who have lived in the city for years are oblivious to the high and low tides that chase each other around the clock, inching forward every twenty-four hours, one tide gradually creeping through the day while the other takes the night shift. They have no idea that the height between low and high water at London Bridge varies from fifteen to twenty-two feet or that it takes six hours to come upriver and six and a half for it to flow back out to sea.

"I am obsessed with the incessant rise and fall of the water. For years my spare time has been controlled by the river's ebb and flow, and the consequent covering and uncovering of the foreshore. I know where the river allows me access early and where I can stay for the longest time before I am gently, but firmly, shooed away. I have learned to read the water and catch it as it turns, to recognise the almost imperceptible moment when it stops flowing seawards and currents churn together briefly as the balance tips and the river is once more pulled inland, the anticipation of the receding water replaced by a sense of loss, like saying goodbye to an old friend after a long-awaited visit.

Drawing of the old Battersea Bridge by James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne in Brown and Silver (Old Battersea Bridge) by James McNeill Whistler

"Tide tables commit the river's movements to paper, predict its future and record its past. I use these complex lines of numbers, dates, times and water heights to fill my diary, temptations to weave my life around, but it is the river that decides when I can search it, and tides have no respect for sleep or commitments. I have carefully arranged meetings and appointments according to the tides, and conspired to meet friends near the river so that I can steal down to the foreshore before the water comes in and after it's flowed out. I've kept people waiting, bringing in a trail of mud and apologies in my wake; missed the start of many films and even left some early to catch the last few inches of foreshore. I have lied, cajoled and manipulated to get time by the river. It comes knocking on all hours and I obey, forcing myself out of a warm bed, pulling on layers of clothes and padding quietly down the stairs, trying not to wake the sleeping house....

"It is the tides that make mudlarking in London so unique. For just a few hours each day, the river gives us access to its contents, which shift and change as the water ebbs and flows, to reveal the story of a city, its people and their relationship with a natural force. If the Seine in Paris were tidal it would no doubt provide a similar bounty and satisfy an army of Parisian mudlarks; when the non-tidal Amstel River in Amsterdam was recently drained to make way for a new train line, archaeologists recorded almost 700,000 objects, of just the kind we find in the Thames: buttons that burst off waistcoats long ago, rings that slipped from fingers, buckles that are all that's left of a shoe -- the personal possessions of ordinary people, each small piece a key to another world and a direct link to long-forgotten lives. As I have discovered, it is often the tiniest of objects that tells the greatest stories."

Wapping by James McNeill Whistler

Mudlarking is an unusual and thoroughly engaging book, full of the history of the city, of the river, and of the quirky society of mudlarks drawn to the banks of the Thames, past and present. Maiklem is a wonderful raconteur, and a knowledgeable one. If the subject intrigues you, check out her London Mudlark Facebook page for pictures of her adventures and finds, like the one below:

Mudlarking finds. Photograph by Lara Maiklem.

Black Lion's Wharf by James McNeill Whistler

Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler is memoir woven through with nature writing (or perhaps it's the other way around), centred on the old canal system of Birmingham in the English West Midlands. It's the story of the unravelling of a heterosexual marriage, of slowly and cautiously coming out as gay, and of the challenge of beginning a new life while standing in shock in the ruins of the old -- something many of us can relate to, even if the particulars of our dramatic life changes are different than the author's. 

Longing for solitude and immersion in nature, Fowler daydreams about running away to Bolivia or central Asia, but settles on an adventure closer to home: exploring the Birmingham Canal Network -- in the heart of the city and beyond its borders -- in an inflatable kayak. She romanticises neither the urban canals nor her own life choices, writing honestly and insightfully about each; and yet the resulting story has a raw beauty of its own. Fowler writes:

Symphony in Grey and Silver (The Thames) by James McNeill Whistler"The backwaters [of the Icknield Port Loop] fascinated me. At night, I dreamt of returning to it, swimming, running through the water or just floating back down the same stretch that runs after the boatyard. In those dreams I saw everything in great detail. 

"Nothing in that stretch was precious, not the abandoned day boats, the rubbish strewn in the water, the wayside weeds or framed views of urban wasteland beyond the broken factory facades. Nature there was a mixture of native and non-native. The weeds were growing straight out of heavy-metal pollution and were stunted or burnt by the effort. None of the trees showed the soft, new green of spring, but instead were flushed already with deficiencies, their trunks scarred by the battle of living there, their branches strewn with ribbons of plastic. As I returned to those images, I was already obsessed with and a little haunted by that landscape. I went back to do the loop again.

"It was as unsettled as I was. Its position was as temporal as mine. It was barely holding itself together: the canal sides were crumbling, the banks bursting with wild things ready to march into the water and claim new ground. That landscape couldn't quite decide what it was. It was wild, but not natural, it was old, but not old enough. Its riches kept changing or floating away. It belonged only to those who cared to claim it, outsiders, tenacious wildlife, the drunken, the homeless, the lost and me.

Symphony in Gray (Early Morning Thames) by James McNeill Whistler

"I have never been much for joining in or up. I liked people and I liked belonging, but I have always floated between identities. One foot here and the other there, ready to move on if the boundaries seem to be settling into something rigid. I like best the edges of society, of ecosystems, of friendships. I like the place that is both held on to and departed from. And this watery world was just that. For the first time in nine years, I'd found a bit of Birmingham to fall for and all my internal butterflies took flight with excitement.

"I felt the great pull of the unknown, of adventure, setting in: if a place that was just a few miles from the city centre could hold another world so strange and unsettled, what would the past reveal? The pastoral edges of the network didn't pull me half so much as the dirty great industrial heart and its drum-thumping factories."

Limehouse by James McNeill Whistler

Much later in the book, Fowler reflects on this passage of her life, and her obsession with the city's waterways while in the midst of seismic life change. She writes:

Little Wapping by James McNeill Whistler"Travelling on the canals is to carry out a series of small rituals, to bear witness to the way light changes on the surface of the water or a seed head disperses and where next year's plants will appear. The best journeys are always worth repeating, and that is how I feel about my favourite stretches of the canals. I like those cathedrals of green trees in the suburbs. I like them in the spring when the fresh new green unfurls. I loved them in the autumn when those buttery leaves swirled around my paddle, and how in the stark of winter I see their bare bones swaying in the wind as I feel the chill of the water beneath me. 

"I see now that this journey on the water was about finding an external correlation to my inner world, a fluid space that would allow me to make my own changes.

"The canals will change and change again. Those metal hulls will sink or be dragged out, the edges tidied, graffiti removed. I hope there will always be kingfishers and butterflies to watch; I hope later generations will watch herons spear fish and lean over the edge of their boats to peer at pike. I hope that everyone has the sense to leave a little of the edges wild."

Nocturne in Blue and Silver (Cremorne Lights) by James McNeill Whistler

We've talked about urban magic in a previous post, and how the cities, too, contain rich pockets of nature and of enchantment. Mudlarking and Hidden Nature, in their different ways, are celebrations this; and of the ways the wild flows through all our lives, no matter where we live.

Nocturne in Grey and Silver by James McNeill Whistler

The art today is one of my favourite American artists, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), a brilliant colourist whose tonal paintings were both widely admired and deplored by the 19th century art establishment. (His work rarely invited mild reactions, nor did his pugnacious personality.) Whistler was born and raised in New England, but also spent part of his youth in Russia and London due to his father's work as a railroad engineer. He was educated at West Point Military Academy and worked as a military draftsman before deciding to devote himself to art. He then set sail for Paris at the age of 21, where he studied in the atelier of Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre and fell in with a social circle that included Alphonse Legros, Édouard Manet, and Charles Baudelaire. He eventually settled down in London (around the corner from Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Thomas Carlye), where he spent most of his adult life.

Although today Whistler is perhaps best known for his figurative work (and his iconic portrait of his mother), he also made many paintings, drawings, and etchings of the River Thames over forty years.  Art scholar Angeria Rigamonit di Cuto notes: "He began his explorations in the east of London, at Wapping, Limehouse and Greenwich, before moving upriver, his cosmopolitan background and outsider status perhaps easing his access to the mean streets of the docklands (among 'a beastly set of cads', according to his friend George du Maurier)."

You can see more of his distinctive artwork here.

Nocturne in Grey and Gold by James McNeill Whistler

The passages above are quoted from Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury, 2019) and Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017); all rights reserved by the authors. The titles of the Whistler paintings and etchings above can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

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