Review of the 2021 cultural year – The Writer: Tom Chivers on mudlarking, Netflix and being “hyper-local”

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Tom Chivers is a South London writer, editor and artistic producer.

He has published two brochures and two collections of poetry, the last being Dark Isles (Test center, 2015).

His debut in non-fiction London Clay: Deep City Journeys (Doubleday, 2021) was Audio Book of the Week in The Times.

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Under the river wall, you walk through the decaying woods of London’s maritime past, your eyes fixed on the mud and rubble of the beach. It’s night. The laughter of the drinkers of a riverside pub echoes across the silent foreshore. A sudden noise and you turn around: a fox dog rushes over the pebbles. Her eyes shine in the shadows like precious stones. Someone starts a boozy rendition of “Happy Birthday” as your boots start to sink into a fine gravel mud on the tide’s edge. Happy birthday, dear Char-lie. You squat, then you kneel, then reach out.

This is the place, or the surroundings, from which the Mayflower freighter left in 1620, bound for the New World, for a new departure. This year, four hundred (one) years later, the Thames foreshore at Rotherhithe has become my world, and each descent is a new adventure: searching for treasures from the city’s past on a floor cleaned twice a day. by the tide.

Mudlarking was my lockdown discovery of 2020, but it wasn’t until the past twelve months that I have, in mudlarks parlance, “guessed.” My 2021 finds include Victorian bottles and brooches, 17th century coins, lead tokens, shards of Roman crockery, Georgian buttons and medieval buckles, two small pewter plates and a stunning polychrome tile from Delft which must be registered by the Museum of London.

For many Thames mudlarks, mudlarking is more than just a hobby; it offers respite, calm and solitude. The foreshore is a liminal space, neither here nor there, and walking it often resembles a kind of meditation. For me, mudlarking has punctuated and structured my life in a time of extreme stress, exhaustion and hopelessness.

From Bankside to Cuckold’s Point, the river has offered me not only treasure, but time away from emails, Zoom calls, housework and the demands of young children. At low tide, I turn into an amateur archaeologist, a performer with kneepads covered in mud, a ghostly figure walking the margins of the city where past and present mingle. I can easily spend three hours by the river without even thinking about COVID-19.

While they’re hardly frequent travelers at the best of times, the pandemic has forced us to get hyper-local. I haven’t been to the theater once, but spent many happy hours reading in my local cafe (Bru on Quebec Way).

This year I read mostly non-fiction (or hybrid / short fiction) written by women: Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Notes from Deep Time by Helen Gordon, Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden, Ways of Living by Gemma Seltzer, On Belonging by Saira Niazi, and of course A Field Guide to Larking by Lara Maiklem. On New Years Eve, I’ll be finishing Thomas Williams’ shiny (and slim) Viking London.

As the Omicron wave swept through London, my wife and I watched Mackenzie Crook’s comedic masterpiece Detectorists for the third time. Thank god for Netflix. And wine.

In cinema, 2021 was the year of two ingeniously reinvented westerns.

In News of the World and The Power of the Dog, the armed cowboy is replaced by complex anti-heroes interpreted respectively by Tom Hanks and Benedict Cumberbatch. My oldest daughter, meanwhile, enjoyed the lively adventure of the Wild West Spirit Untamed on a rare trip to our local Odeon at Surrey Quays. My two daughters (5 and 1) have brought joy, curiosity and boundless laughter to this difficult year. They are much more resistant than me.

My highlight of 2021 was the release in September of my non-fiction debut album, London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City. I described my book as ‘adjacent to the lark’ because it is also about history, combining cartography and research with long, winding walks around London.

Guided by a disfigured Streetfinder map, I trace the course of lost rivers through urban forests, industrial sites and sewers. I descend into a flooded basement in Westminster, roam Hampstead Heath in search of hidden sources, and uncover geological mysteries beneath Kings Cross and Elephant and Castle.

A poet by inclination and publication record, I have spent many years exploring and writing about my hometown; at the heart of London Clay is a personal journey to understand what drives this desire I feel for its lost landscapes, its buried stories. This is why it was so exciting to welcome old friends and family to the book launch at the Brunel Museum, Rotherhithe, and descend with them into the great Victorian tunnel. For a brief moment after, drinking cocktails on the patio as time stood, it seemed normal life would finally resume.

I have to thank my brilliant publicist Tabitha Pelly for finally getting me out of SE16. Over the past three months I have ventured into the wilds of Dulwich, Chiswick, Hackney and Wanstead, read in the library at Southwark Cathedral and led a walking tour in the rain of the River Lea with the poet Siddhartha Bose.

I finally made it over the M25 for a trip to Oxfordshire when I appeared at the Burford Literary Festival and was then smuggled into the Hook Norton Beer Festival by my godfather and his son.

Drinking real ale in a field as the sun sets over the Cotswolds – now is something to be cherished.

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London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City by Tom Chivers was published in hardback format by Doubleday and is also available as Ebook.

Tom’s poems have been collected in Dear World & Everything In It and London: A History in Verse. He was shortlisted for the Michael Marks and Edwin Morgan Poetry Awards and received an Eric Gregory Award in 2011. Tom has performed ambulatory, site-specific and audio work for organizations such as LIFT, Cape Farewell, Humber Mouth and Southbank Center. He was Writer in Residence at the Bishopsgate Institute and Associate Artist at the National Center of Writing. In 2009 he presented a documentary for BBC Radio 4 on the poet Barry MacSweeney. In 2011, an animated film of his poem ‘The Event’ was released on Channel 4’s Random Acts.

He lives in Rotherhithe with his wife and daughters.


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