Kate Chisholm

The joys of scavenging the Thames

The joys of scavenging the Thames
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‘It’s very hard for you to really live in the day,’ says Ruth, ‘because you don’t know by evening you may have a letter from an agency saying you’ve got to go tomorrow.’ She arrived in the UK in 1937, aged 15, sent here by her Jewish family to escape the Nazis. Now 98, she was talking to Nikki Tapper, a presenter for BBC West Midlands, at a community centre in Birmingham, which since 2015 has committed itself to be a city of sanctuary. In The Syrians and the Kindertransport on Radio 4 (produced by George Luke), Tapper brings together two generations of refugees, divided by 70 years, who have come to the UK from very different worlds, but who share the experience of losing everything and being forced by circumstances beyond their control to settle elsewhere.

Murad arrived in the UK from Syria via Lebanon and Jordan. He knew no English and found that language was his biggest challenge. A teacher in his home country, he now works as a bus driver. Lia, who arrived in 1939 on the penultimate Kindertransport from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, hopes he will soon get back to teaching. She was only eight when she was sent away by her parents and lost her entire family.

But Tapper’s thought-provoking programme did not just tell us stories, the challenges of arrival, the struggle to readjust, the relief to at last feel accepted. She also pointed out that although on a local level refugees are made welcome, central government policy is much less open and accommodating. Back in the 1930s the Kindertransport provided for 10,000 children, but now in 2019 Lord Dubs, who was once one of those children to be saved from Nazi extermination, is finding it difficult to establish a commemorative scheme that would welcome 10,000 vulnerable children over the next 10 years from theatres of war and violence. Each local authority would only have to accept three to five children a year, but still there is resistance.

Murad is grateful for how much he has learnt from Ruth and Lia. ‘Don’t worry. Don’t panic. Don’t give up hope.’ Louai, also from Syria, tells us that the word ‘home’ is not just a place, ‘it’s the people around you. This is what we lost in Syria.’

Gordon Brown’s cachet as a former PM means that he was able to bring together a formidable group of experts and philanthropists for his Radio 4 programme Gordon Brown on The Gospel of Wealth (produced by Liza Greig). Brown’s father was the first in his family to go to university, on a Carnegie scholarship, and Brown was celebrating the centenary of Andrew Carnegie’s death. He grew up poor in Scotland, made his money in steel in the USA, and then resolved to give it all away before he died believing that ‘the man who dies rich dies disgraced’.

Carnegie was ruthless, says Brown, in his pursuit of wealth, but equally driven in his ambition to improve community life through education. Drive around Scotland and you will find Carnegie libraries everywhere, often with the words ‘Let there be light’ over the door.

Brown’s challenge, as the UN Special Envoy on Global Education, is to convince billionaires today to focus on what can make a difference rather than pursue their own passions. Also to follow Carnegie’s model and give away all they have earned (even the most philanthropic tend to stop and think again when they reach 60 per cent). There is still so much to be done to provide education and safety, as Nikki Tapper’s programme illustrated powerfully.

When I lived in a flat not far from Blackfriars Bridge, I discovered a whole new perspective on the city by walking on to the foreshore of the river when the tide was out. It was like entering a different world simply by going down a short flight of steps, away from the traffic, the hubbub, the hectic pace, and finding a new peace, a different light, a world apart. Lara Maiklem’s book of the week for Radio 4, Mudlarking, is her story of 15 years spent scavenging the Thames.

Some go with metal detectors and trowels; Maiklem prefers gumboots and rubber gloves. By Hammersmith Bridge she is thrilled to discover a dull-grey slug of type. A comma. The only one in the world, she thinks. A survivor of the bitter row between a Victorian bookbinder and a typographer who together designed a new hand-made font, Doves, but then fell out. In 1911 the bookbinder consigned 500,000 pieces of metal type into the river, which are now still being washed up for mudlarkers to discover.

Maiklem has also found a giant shark’s tooth, a piece from a Roman box flue used in a central-heating system, and a Tudor lace-end that would have decorated the shirt or jacket of a gentleman. But her favourite finds are pins, used to hold together nappies, keep on hats and tie up a shroud. There’s nothing more ordinary, she tells us, but you can connect with the hands that made it, the clothes it held together, the conversations it witnessed. Pins, handmade until the 19th century, take us straight back into life as it was lived before zips and ready-to-wear clothes.