Lara Maiklem, 52, has seen at least three corpses floating in the Thames. She has also come across many other human remains from bygone times – tibias, skulls, jaws with teeth still attached, once belonging to people who fell from ships, who died in battles, who took their own lives or who were thrown in by someone who wanted to get rid of them. Maiklem once found a skull near the estuary which she named Fred: it was 300 years old and probably belonged to a prisoner confined somehwere in the area.
But that’s not what Maiklem’s work is about, Rather, it is about finding objects that testify to the past of a city as populous and with such a long history as London, in the river that runs through it. “The river is omnipresent in London, but sometimes we don’t seem to even see it,” explains Maiklem, who has written a book about her experiences, Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames, now out in Spanish as well.
In it, she recounted her adventures and discoveries as a mudlarker, one of those diggers who take advantage of the low tides (the Thames is a tidal river) to scrutinize the mud and find objects from other eras. “People love it, because we all have a hunter-gatherer inside us,” she says. “It’s about the excitement of finding something you weren’t expecting.”
Mudlarking has historically been an activity performed by the lower classes of society. “It has existed since there were people so poor as to go looking for what other people throw away. The term began to be used at the end of the 18th century, alluding to people who lived on the fringes of society. It was a way of survival, but now it has become a hobby,” says the author, who has popularized the activity on social media under the name The London Mudlark. Her book is also a reflection on the history of the city as well as “a love letter” to the river: “It’s a beautiful ugly place, like all of London, which is a bit of a badass,” she jokes.
Roman bottle stoppers, 19th-century movable type made from lead (the bookbinder T. J. Cobden-Sanderson dumped 500,000 pieces into the river in the Hammersmith area), Tudor-era bricks, a medieval pilgrim’s band, a 16th-century sword, a container from the Iron Age… the Thames is the longest archaeological bed in England: thousands of objects kept in museums come from its banks. For example, the famous Battersea Shield, a Celtic bronze piece dated between 350 and 50 BC, now kept in the British Museum. To start looking, would-be mudlarks are advised to consult old maps and go where there is, or has at some point been, human activity: warehouses, docks, workshops, bridges or wharves. That is why it is also common to find items of little value associated with everyday life: iron chains, wooden bowls, the handle of a copper frying pan, beads, keys, nails, pieces of string or the pegs of a musical instrument. “Personally, this list transports me to other times, and at the same time it is very familiar to me,” writes Maiklem, who in 2022 was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
A history of the average person
Thus, in the mud of the Thames, the mudlarkers uncover the history of average people – not of kings, dynasties or great military campaigns, but of the ordinary citizens trying to survive by the river in an increasingly crazy city. One of the reasons why so many antiquities are being found, in addition to those that people threw into the water, is that in other times the waste was used to fill and buttress the retaining walls of the river and other structures. When these erode or are damaged or demolished, the pieces are released, as if they had been stored in the freezer of history.
There is legislation that regulates which items can be kept by mudlarkers and which have to be delivered to the Museum of London, which relies heavily on these finds. There are objects considered “treasures” by the State: for instance, they must be over 300 years old and at least 10% of their weight must be made up of precious metals, although there are other requirements as well. Of course, there is also a large amount of contemporary material in the waters, especially pertaining to hygiene or medicine: bath toys, combs, colostomy bags, syringes, toothbrushes. And one can also run into wastewater: the equivalent of 7,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools is dumped into the river every year. Today, the Thames is one of the cleanest city rivers in the world, but in the mid-20th century it was so dirty and neglected that it was considered “biologically dead,” until a recovery operation succeeded in getting it cleaned up.
Not everyone can do it: to practice mudlarking you need a license. And to be a member of the distinguished Thames Estuary Mudlarkers Society, founded in 1962 by Harry Mostyn, curator of the National Maritime Museum, it is necessary to hold the standard license for two years and have made contributions to the Museum of London. There are those who use metal detectors and who dig holes in the ground, but Maiklem is not in favor of this last practice, because it can seriously damage buried objects and the riverbank itself. She prefers simply to look at the surface, to take in what the river offers her with the naked eye.
Maiklem began practicing mudlarking when she moved to the capital from the family farm in Surrey in the early 1990s. As a restless young woman she was bored with the countryside and obsessed by the London lights and chaos. Once in London, the Thames was just an obstacle that she crossed, slumped in the back seat of a taxi when she returned, at dawn, from clubs and crazy parties. But one day she noticed it… and it felt good, like she was coming home.
In fact, Maiklem retains some of the skills she honed in the countryside: the supple back of a family used to picking potatoes, the full attention to small things that her mother instilled in her. Now, Maiklem pays close attention to what the riverside mud harbors and she has adapted her gaze to interpret it, just as scientists learn to interpret what they see under a microscope. In nature there are few straight lines, few perfect shapes, so detecting them in the mud is a way of recognizing what has been made by human hands.
The dangers of getting lost in the river
The practice of mudlarking has advantages: it is a way to develop patience in these rushed times, to relax and spend time away from the smartphone, to isolate yourself from the outside world, to practice mindfulness. But this lack of awareness about our surroundings can also be dangerous: “You have to be aware of the tide, which can rise quickly while you are distracted. And you also have to be careful in areas where the mud is very deep and you can sink in”, warns the expert.
Sometimes Maiklem finds bottles with messages inside, children’s tales of dragons and princesses or intimate scribbles, farewells to loved ones who have gone forever or psychological demons that someone wants to conjure up by delivering them to the river as a therapy. The river also has a long magical, religious and spiritual past. “Sometimes searching the river is like reading people’s newspapers: love letters, old photographs, engagement rings turn up…” she says. The precious “witch bottles” also appear with some frequency: containers filled with urine, hair or fingernails that served to protect from hypothetical evil spells.
But Maiklem’s favorite find is a small boy’s shoe from the Tudor era, in the 16th century: “The mud preserves the fabrics as they were when they ended up in the river, so this shoe is perfectly preserved, you can see perfectly the shape of the toes of the child who used it, a hole where the big toe was, it’s like a trip back in time. For that feeling, for discoveries like this, it is worth spending hours and hours in the damp and cold searching the banks of the Thames.”
The Danish shipping giant Maersk held meetings with Denmark’s tax and maritime authorities to advise them on how best to shield the shipping industry from the OECD’s global minimum tax deal, according to a Danish media report.
Published: 8 February 2023 16:21 CET
The revelations, reported by broadcaster DR, come as the company on Wednesday reported record profits of 203 billion kroner, on which it paid just 3 percent in tax.
They are particularly damaging to the company because of the claim last year from Maersk’s then CEO Søren Skou that his company was open to paying more tax, so long as it was through a global agreement via the OECD, precisely the sort of agreement the company was behind the scenes trying to exclude itself from.
“It seems as if Maersk is playing a double game,” Lars Koch from the poverty charity Oxfam, told DR after he was presented with the evidence.
“We can see from the access to documents the number of meetings and close and confidential dialogue”, he added. “Here they agree and inform each other about what Denmark should argue in these international negotiations on a tax agreement and they work actively to safeguard Maersk’s interests by exempting the shipping companies.”
The broadcaster report was based on internal documents obtained from the Ministry of Taxation and the Danish Maritime Authority.
The documents show that in June 2020, representatives of the company held a meeting with the Ministry of Taxation in which they they discussed strategies on excluding shipping from the OECD agreement on minimum tax.
Soon afterwards, the industry lobby group Danish Shipping (Danske Rederier), where Maersk plays a leading role, wrote to the Ministry of Taxation and the Danish Maritime Authority warning that the OECD proposal “creates considerable uncertainty in our hinterland”.
Then in June 2021, a representative from the Danish Maritime Authority thanked Danish Shipping for supplying it with arguments it could use to push for shipping to be excluded, saying, “it was extremely well done. A thousand thanks for your efforts.”
Finally, when shipping was exempted from the OECD agreement in July 2021, a representative from Danish Shipping thanked the Danish Maritime Authority for “the orientation and for being aware of the special challenges of shipping”.
Mette Mellemgaard Jakobsen, Maersk’s head of tax, admitted that her company had tried to influence the process.
“We were specifically concerned about how these rules would be implemented, and we had a concrete concern that it would create an increased distortion of competition,” she told DR.
“For us, it is absolutely crucial that we are not put at a disadvantage compared to other shipping companies around the world. That is why global agreements are the most important thing for us.”
Rasmus Corlin Christensen, a researcher in international tax at Copenhagen Business School, said that Maersk’s double game was quite “striking”.
“On the one hand, you support and work for global solutions, the shipping industry included. But at the same time you can see that, at least when it comes to the global reforms that have been discussed in recent years, they did not want the shipping industry to be covered.”
Contemporary TV fiction does not shy away from polarizing topics. From the capitalist nightmare of Severance (2022) to the mental health issues of Euphoria(2019,) shows increasingly incorporate social debates into their plot lines in response to a growing interest. Gone are the years of the 1990s escapism of Friends and The Office’s controversial canned laughter. Now, for a show to succeed, it must actively participate in the cultural conversation.
This trend is particularly reflected in awards like the Golden Globes, which recently recognized socially engaged productions such as Abbott Elementary or The Bear. Despite this progress, most of these shows haven’t yet broken one of the last taboos in fiction: the lack of body diversity and representation of fat characters.
Anti-fatness is an accepted, widespread discrimination – tiny airplane seats, body-related comments – and fat people remain culturally marginalized. Society “doesn’t like talking to fat people, looking at fat people, believing fat people [and] listening to fat people,” says Lyla Byers, a researcher at Virginia Tech. “We would really prefer for fat people not to exist in public.”
As a result, obese people can suffer serious health consequences. “When I was a child, I suffered medical violence; I was very thin but a pediatrician put me on 18,000 diets,” says Spanish actress Laura Galán Montijano, who starred in the award-winning Piggy (2022). “She was obsessed with my weight, she used to weigh me every week.”
Even some medical terms like “obesity” or “overweight” are problematic, based on a non-inclusive metric: the body mass index (BMI). “BMI was never meant to be used to measure individual health,“ says Byers. “It’s way too simple a measurement for way too complex an issue,” adds Jennifer Graves, author of Framing Fat, a book that challenges the dominant weight discourses. “There are still significant civil rights issues that fat people face in terms of lack of protection against discrimination in the medical system.”
Laziness, stupidity, gluttony or having low sexual capital are some of the concepts associated with fat people, according to Jeanine Gailey, a sociology professor at Texas Christian University. “The cultural messaging is that fat is the worst thing one can be,” Gailey says. These stigmas are internalized by producers, who fail to include diverse perspectives. “When [women] are not desirable according to beauty standards, we’re not featured on screen,” says Montijano.
And, when fiction does introduce fat characters, they are often reduced to old-school stereotypes, from the bullied girl of Debby Ryan’s Insatiable (2018) to the idiotic, slothful Homer Simpson. “Many people in society watch these shows or these movies, internalize these portrayals and believe these things about fat people,” says Ariane Prohaska, a researcher at the University of Alabama. “It leads us to treat fat people differently and to treat ourselves differently, in a way that makes us believe that we have to constantly be improving our bodies.”
Reducing obese people to caricatures especially affects traditionally marginalized minority groups, such as women, people of color and the LGBTQI+ community. “Body size intersects with other dimensions of oppression,” says Prohaska. “So, women of color, particularly Black women, face a lot of stigma.” Big Shirley, a recurring character on the television show Martin, is a classic example of a problematic portrayal of fat Black women on TV, as is America Ferrera’s character on Ugly Betty.
Fat white women have managed to diversify their roles in American fiction thanks to the work of actresses like Melissa McCarthy or Lena Dunham. But “Hollywood Fatness” is not representative of the US a whole. Chrissy Metz, for example, said in 2016 that as part of her This is Us contract, where she played a woman struggling with eating habits, she had to lose weight. Later, however, she retracted her comments. “Gatekeepers, the people who are behind the scenes deciding what stories Americans are going to buy, tend to be white, wealthy and male,” says Virgie Tovar, a writer and expert on body discrimination. “This creates a cycle of the same kinds of stories being told over and over again.”
When it comes to queer men, fiction narrowly focuses on the body cult that characterizes part of the community through masculine, beefy characters such as those in Élite (2018,) Smiley (2022) or in the last season of American Horror Story. “It really is paradoxical that the diversity the LGBTQI+ community demands is not practiced within it,” says Roberto Enríquez, critic and creator of Queer You Are (2021.)
In the show, Enríquez self-fictionalizes his own youth through Gabriel Sánchez and Carlos González, who embody the double discrimination the director has suffered because of his sexual orientation and his body. “I was clear that, if I was going to do the show, I was going to do it my own way,” says Enríquez. “They had to be fat characters because that was the story I was telling, how they face life with those bodies, how they face rejection and desire.” In an interview for ICON, Sánchez spoke of the danger of stereotyping fat people. “If you’re fat, they make you do fat things. ‘I fall down and break the chair because I’m fat; I’m fat and I eat four pastries in 10 minutes.’ The fat guy always has scenes where he is binge-eating.”
If LGBTQI+ stories are still disruptive, triggering far-right censure, those that incorporate artists with non-normative bodies, away from the imposed canon and with plots beyond those of physical obsession, have an even greater subversive impact. “Queer bodies and fat bodies are seen as excessive, so when you have queer fat bodies, they are doubly destabilizing,” says Jason Whitesel, a sociologist at Illinois State University and author of Fat Gay Men, which examines fat stigma within gay male communities. “Most of our shows are put together by people who think the queer community is best represented by thin or muscular people.”
Even though fat suits are still employed by the entertainment industry, fiction has progressed from the rather cringeworthy “Fat Monica” episode of Friends. In The Girls at the Back (2022,) Mariona Terés plays Leo, a millennial woman who plans a trip with her friends after one is diagnosed with cancer. Terés, with a leading, cliché-free role, believes that many things have changed in recent years, albeit slowly. “We are seeing different bodies on screen, but we have to keep changing the clichés,” she says. “The next step is a fat woman playing a sexy character, in a romantic relationship with someone, and normalizing that her body is beautiful, that she can eat whatever she wants and fuck whoever she wants.”
Besides expanding the narrative complexity of fat characters, fiction must increase their range of roles away from one-dimensional supporting characters haunted by their physical appearance.
“What I hope is that diversity is broadened in all senses,” says Carlota Pereda, director of Piggy. Without financial support from production companies, projects with leading fat characters will struggle to be developed. “When you’re looking for funding, some people won’t support you because they consider it a personal project just because you’ve put a non-normative character in the leading role.”
Although fiction lags behind a society that is largely critical of negative representations of fat characters in productions like The Whale, the industry will eventually accept that non-Hollywood bodies exist and deserve to be represented, with complex storylines and free from humiliating fat suits. “I do think we’re going to see more and more diverse people on screen,” says Terés. “It’s a slow road, but we’ll get to the other side.”
The brinksmanship has won plaudits from some who argue that by holding out, the German leader managed to get the United States to reverse its stance and send Abrams tanks — bringing about a bigger win for Ukraine.
But other analysts warn the weeks of delay may have left a deeper mark on Scholz’s international reputation, while also hurting Kyiv’s chances against Russian troops on the battlefield.
“The SPD chancellor has achieved one of his biggest aims: delivering battle tanks only in step with the Americans,” wrote Die Zeit weekly.
Rather, he repeatedly underlined that it was and is “right that we did not let ourselves be pushed into this but that we rely on and also continue on close cooperation”.
It was perhaps not a coincidence that Scholz’s announcement came after public opinion shifted slightl in favour of sending tanks, with 46 percent for and 41 percent against on January 19.
Directly addressing fears of Germans, who have favoured treading lightly around conflict zones since World War II, Scholz pointedly said he would ensure that any support for Ukraine would be provided “without the risks for our country growing in the wrong direction”.
Asked later on ZDF public television whether his hesitation had led to a “loss of trust” among allies, Scholz rejected the criticism.
“Everyone knows we are making a big contribution, also compared to other countries, in terms of support for Ukraine — not only financially and with humanitarian aid but also with weapons.”
But some analysts said his concern for domestic politics may have cost Ukraine on the frontlines.
In the meantime, “several months” had been lost in the defence of Ukraine, while Scholz was “more concerned with domestic politics” and an issue he did not see as a “big vote winner”, Chatham House analyst John Lough told AFP.
Fears that moving too rashly would lead to an escalation in the war were exaggerated, too. Even without tank deliveries, “the Russians have escalated anyway”, for example by targeting critical infrastructure in Ukraine, Lough said.
Amid the ruckus, particularly with neighbouring Poland accusing Scholz of dithering, analysts point to the damage done to Germany’s reputation.
Bild daily piled on the pressure at home, accusing Scholz of cowardice. But a day later, a high-profile defence ministers’ meeting of Ukraine allies last Friday still failed to break the deadlock on tanks.
The delay was “embarrassing for the German government”, said Lough.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) comments on the Russian attack on Ukraine during a press conference at the Chancellery on February 24th, 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler
Sudha David-Wilp, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office, said moving in lock-step with the United States gave Scholz the “political cover he needed” to say “yes” to German tank deliveries.
But his short-term win was not “necessarily good for Germany because it has lost a lot of trust” with key partners, David-Wilp said.
The way the tank drama played out “clearly shows that the US needs to play a leadership role in Europe” and its security, while German leadership remained “elusive”, she said.
Yet, for all the apparent damage to Scholz, there might be a winner.
The unexpected US tank commitment means that officials in Ukraine have “all kinds of different kit now”, David-Wilp added.