The other Christmas I decided to buy everyone a reusable coffee cup for their present
I had been given a really great one and I was a convert and, like most converts, I became a bit evangelical about it. It was my little contribution to this throwaway society in which we now seem to live, my tiny contribution to addressing the issues that see our seas full of plastic, our rivers chocked with waste. So you can imagine my disappointment when the coffee shop I would go to on my way into the Cathedral told me that Covid meant I couldn’t use my reusable cup but had to have one of their disposable ones! I could understand it, of course, but it felt like a bit of a backward step even though things must be like this at the present.
The theme of our current exhibition is Larking, the art of looking for the little treasures that are all around us, on beaches (beachlarking), in fields (fieldlarking), at home (houselarking and gardenlarking) and of course mudlarking in rivers. This display includes items that have been discovered on the foreshore of the Thames, many from the stretch right beside the Cathedral, and also contemporary art inspired by Bankside and this detritus. Because this is of course what it is, stuff that people have thrown in, carelessly, on purpose, accidentally, that has been there for years, centuries, until the water releases it, washes it onto the exposed banks and someone collects it.
Living where I do, in the Deanery on Bankside, I can look out and twice a day see those banks, exposed by the retreating tide and the mudlarks doing their thing. They walk methodically, eyes cast down looking intently, carefully, purposefully, for what is there. Most don’t have the clicking of a metal detector to assist them, they just use their eyes.
It’s a reminder to me that we have always been a throwaway society. The piles of waste on archaeological sites reveal so much about our forebears, what they ate, what they drank, what they ate from, wore, fought with, farmed with. The waste is a description in stuff of the stuff of their lives. In these cabinets are the soles of shoes, worn when? by whom? who knows. You can see the holes that took the thread that stitched the sole to the rest of the shoe. There are the ubiquitous clay pipes, the remains of bottles from beer or wine that was being enjoyed by revellers on the South Bank.
The exhibition includes the work of two contemporary artists, Raewyn Harrison and Liz Willis, who have been brought together by a shared love and fascination for the River Thames and the historic artefacts that are found on its foreshore at low tide. As they say:
‘These fragments of the past tell stories of London’s first farmers more than 5000 years ago, Roman invaders, and Medieval saints. They paint pictures of fun and frivolity at Southwark’s Tudor inns and theatres and darker images of prison ships and slavery.’
Many of the objects on display feature in Lara Maiklem’s bestselling book Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames and her new publication A Field Guide to Larking: Beachcombing, Mudlarking, Fieldwalking and More (published on the 19 August by Bloomsbury Publishing), and Raewyn and Liz have made work specifically for this exhibition that responds to the locations and the finds in the book.
Among the objects is a little pilgrim badge, collected by a pilgrim who visited the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Presumably, like Chaucer’s pilgrims, they began their journey in one of the taverns in Southwark and in the Priory of St Mary Overie. Then, arriving safely back – after a potentially hazardous journey, they threw their badge into the river as a thank offering to the God who had been their protector on the way. It was a superstitious act but I find it very moving. Was it thrown away or was it offered up?
‘Cast your bread upon the waters’ (Ecclesiastes 11.1)
This exhibition challenges our concept of rubbish and shows that these lost and forgotten objects can be transformed into something new and beautiful and something holy. Come along and see it but be careful what you throw away!
God, to whom all is of value, show us the true worth of everything and everyone and the beauty that lies even in what we discard. Amen.
The Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark