All the Best Rubbish by Noel Ivor Hume
I admit that I largely picked up Noel Ivor Hume’s All the Best Rubbish because of its amazing cover. And the Dumasian subtitle helped, too (“Being an Antiquary’s Account of the Pleasures and Perils of Studying & Collecting Everyday Objects from the Past”). But beyond the amazing cover art and old-timey subtitle is actually a fascinating tale about the history of collecting.
In the book, Hume talks about his personal history of finding things (amply helped by his personal genius for identification of objects and historian’s background) and explores the broader history of societal collecting. Both are very interesting, but my favorite part had to be when Hume discusses the Thames and his adventures on its banks.
In short, Hume’s point is that the Thames (and London) is far older than most people actively recognize. For centuries, the humans living around the Thames have been tossing their broken pottery and other bits of trash into the river. Fortunately for archaeologists and collectors like Hume, because it is a tidal river, the Thames conveniently gives up these treasures twice daily, innocently washing them ashore and leaving them to be picked up by the right person (Hume, I would argue and he would no doubt agree, is very much that person). In All the Best Rubbish, Hume tells tale after tale of the wondrous things he found just poking around the Thames’ banks.
Being an avid collector myself (and far less discerning than Hume), I had to try it out for myself. This past weekend I shivered down on the south bank of the Thames near the Globe Theater (there are some sturdy, if occasionally icy, stone stairs conveniently leading down to the river there if anyone is looking to go mudlarking themselves) and, as Hume promised, found a happy hoard of historical tidbits, including pottery fragments, a Tudor roof tile, and a mysterious darkened bone of some kind. It was great fun and I never would have gone or thought about the Thames in this way if not for Hume’s book.
The only bit of Hume’s book to be avoided without a doubt is his introduction to the revised edition (which is the one with the lovely cover). In it, Hume attempts to show how up-to-date and groovy he is by commenting on online auctions and “collecting in the 21st century.” All the Best Rubbish was first published some forty years ago, but it hasn’t aged poorly at all, so adding such an introduction onto an otherwise enjoyable text was, to put it bluntly, rubbish! I could easily have done without Hume’s attempts at timeliness.
The introduction aside (easily skipped or avoided by picking up the first edition), I really enjoyed the book and the Thames shenanigans it inspired. I would definitely recommend it for amateur archaeologists, collectors of any stripe, or any Hume fans. It really makes you stand in awe of the breadth of his knowledge.