Rag And Bone by Lisa Woollett 

The Blurb On The Back:

From relics of Georgian empire-building and slave-trading, through Victorian London’s barged-out refuse to 1980s fly-tipping and the pervasiveness of present-day plastics, Rag and Bone traces the story of our rubbish, and, through it, our history of consumption.

In a series of beachcombing and mudlarking walks – beginning in the Thames in central London, then out to the Kentish estuary and eventually the sea around Cornwall – Lisa Woollett also tells the story of her family, a number of whom made their living from London’s waste, and who made a similar journey downriver from the centre of the city to the sea.

A beautifully written but urgent mixture of social history, family memoir and nature writing, Rag and Bone is a book about what we can learn from what we’ve thrown away – and a call to think more about what we leave behind. 

You can order RAG AND BONE: A FAMILY HISTORY OF WHAT WE’VE THROWN AWAY by Lisa Woollett from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Lisa Woollett is a beachcomber and award-winning photographer.  This thoughtful book (structured around mudlarking on the Thames and beachcombing in Cornwall) combines her family history with the history of consumption and the effect that waste is having on nature. However it’s a shame that Woollett never really explains why she’s so fascinated by mudlarking/beachcombing or why she regards certain objects as treasure and others as waste.

I picked this up because I follow a number of social media accounts for museums and mudlarkers, which show historical artefacts found washed up on the Thames and have always been fascinated by the everyday objects from life in the past, which highlight the similarities to today as much as the differences.  

Woollett structures this book into three parts: 

– the first around a mudlarking trip along the Thames from Wapping to the South Bank, then the South Bank to Water Street (just off The Strand) and then in Bermondsey;

– the second a mudlarking/beachcombing trip to the mouth of the Thames estuary, along Bottle Beach in Swale Marshe, then the North Kent Marshes and ending in the Isle of Sheppey; and

– the last around beachcombing along Perrand Sands in North Cornwall and Whitsand Bay in South Cornwall (the county where Woollett now lives).

In each part she uses the mudlarking/beachcombing trip to talk about her finds and then tie it into a linear account of increased consumption and waste in the United Kingdom.  As a history geek, I really enjoyed these sections – she sets out a clear account of what London was like at the relevant times, what activities were being carried out and where and how that ties back to the objects she’s found or hopes to find.  She also brings in a personal element to this because her great-grandfather was a scavenger and her grandfather a dustmen so she is able to give more depth to the account of how waste was treated and dealt with during these times.  

I particularly enjoyed how she brought in her mum to talk about her own memories of the Isle of Sheppey (where her family ended up moving to) and stories about her dustman father and what was said (and not said) about her grandfather as they expand upon what Woollett is able to discover from the census and public records and make it all much more intimate.  Although saying this, I should add that I would have liked it more had Woollett expanded or pushed more on the fear and reluctance to talk about her great-grandfather Thomas, who clearly had a number of issues going on but of whom not a great deal is learned beyond what he did and what that was likely to entail.

Woollett also weaves in the effect of all this waste on the environment at the time, from the stink and pollution in the Thames to how the area around the Isle of Sheppey basically became a dumping ground for waste and refuse and how mass consumption is now leading to the build up of plastics and micro plastics in marine life and on our beaches.  Of course, all of this ties back into capitalism and consumption and Woollett is clear-eyed in writing about how we traded convenience and planned obsolescence for durability and also how even people like herself contribute to the problem.

My main criticism of the book is that although Woollett conveys her fascination for mudlarking/beachcombing, I never really got a sense of why she got into it or what it is about what she finds that she thinks is worth keeping.  She talks throughout the book about examples of the “treasures” that she finds (e.g. bits of old lead toys) and how she displays them at home, but I never understood what, for her, makes something worth keeping and what is just rubbish (for want of a better word).  In the final section she talks a little about old plastic toys (the kind you used to get in cereal packets) and how they’re collectible, but at the same time it seems clear that this is not why she does it (not least because some of what she finds are broken or eroded/damaged by their time in the sea).  It’s just a shame that for an activity that’s so clearly caught up in her family history and a close personal interest, she doesn’t reveal a lot about herself here and for me that was a bit of a missed opportunity because in a book about waste and recycling and consumption, I really wanted to understand why she thought some objects were worth keeping.

This criticism aside, I did enjoy this book.  It’s thoughtfully written, mixes serious points with family history and does make you think about who we are and what we’re doing to the planet.  On that basis, I’d definitely recommend giving this a look and will check out what Woollett writes next.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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