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Fag Ends: Fragments from the Thames

  Trans-disciplinary artist and Globe Associate E.M. Parry explores a queered relationship to time and history through found fragments of clay tobacco pipes mud-larked from the banks of the River Thames

8 minute read

Hand forced, at first, by circumstance, last year I began to create a series of unwitnessed artworks in a haunted garage and part-time gallery space in Deptford. In the spring of lockdown I walked a mile each day through deserted, heat-hazy streets to this dirty-floored, disinfectant-sticky room, to perform for the eye of a camera with no beholder behind it, and for any ghosts that might be hanging around.

These works used as their main material clay tobacco pipe-shards, scavenged on mud-larking expeditions, alone, or with my love on a queer archaeology date, along the banks of the Thames. At low tide they reveal themselves in multitudes, if you’re looking for them. The process of collecting these objects, of training the eye to spot them, distinguishing them from fragments of bone or wood or their contemporary equivalent cigarette butts, choosing which to pick up and which to let lie, washing them clean of London clay in the shallows of the river, marvelling over a particularly long or wide or intriguingly marked or moulded fragment… all this is part of the work, part of the game, part of the ritual, reclaiming trash as treasure. Learning about the process of their manufacture, learning that they contain clues to their age in the thickness of a stem or the width of a bore, whilst gleefully, lovingly embracing the impossibility of knowing their true age, meaning you can insert your imagination into their hollows, dreaming that they might last have held the breath of Moll Frith or Will Kemp or some anonymous queer, this is also part of it. Breathing through them, knowing that your breath is the first to rush through that narrow passage since that of the long-dead unknown smoker who casually discarded it unknowable centuries ago… breathing is work, too. Tasting the memory of tobacco. Researching the 17th c. tobacco trade and its entanglement with early capitalism and the co-emergent kyriarchy of systemic racism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia in which we still breathe – or try to breathe – today – this too is part of the work.

Washing them, carefully. Swearing when you drop one on the floor and it shatters afresh, and realising – recalling how ghosts can haunt through the quotidian and banal – that you’re re-enacting, re-feeling the irritation of the long-ago stranger who dropped and shattered the entire pipe, shrugged, chucked the pieces into the river. Attending to that feeling, holding it in your breast, in your lungs.

Gilding them – just a careful, precious few – while listening to a podcast about King James and his Counterblaste to Tobacco, written in close proximity to his Daemonologie condemning witches. Joining up some dots. These acts of care and craft and listening, they are part of the work too. Threading them with your long-ago lopped-off hair to make strange chains which you hang from the rafters and around your neck. Freezing them in ice and watching it melt, re-revealing them, materialising time in the negative space of a bottle.

Laying them out, end to end – this is a long process, and is also part of the work, a queer archiving of the unknowable. Inventing a system of arbitrary classification, sorting them by size, length, colour. Searching for the ones that are obvious ends, to make a start with. Deciding that a fragment of bowl will generate a cross-roads in the breadcrumb trail, a new tendril searching its way across the floor.

Bursting shockingly into tears when you see them all laid out in their hundreds because each one represents an anonymous breath, a life and a death and a time and a place and now you’re their caretaker and curator and the weight of it is too heavy and beautiful. Crying is part of the work too.

Smoking through them; a respectful (I hope) riff on the traditional practice of smoking as a spiritual, meditative act of communion with ancestors and other spirits, amongst the indigenous peoples of the Americas from whom we Europeans first stole tobacco – among other things. A temporal drag act, intervening with my AFAB, trans*, transitional body in what would have been an axiomatically masculine action. Considering these long-dead smokers’ relationship to gender; performed, lived and felt. Considering my own.

A ritual flirtation, going twos-up with a ghost, sharing a companionable smoke across the centuries.

It is work without a fee, a game without rules or winners, a performance without a live audience, an artwork that can’t be bought, sold or hung on a wall, and it all feels so pointless, and so vital.

On the dirty floor of the haunted garage in Deptford, I make a map across time, across the Atlantic and back, traced in the surrogate bones of the unknowable dead.


In the negative spaces of the archive
Nestle the outcast dead
Prick your ears, peel your eyes, keep your nose to the ground
Tune your sensory antennae to the white noise
Stretch out your hands, fingers twitching like dowsing rods
Search for the traces
Of a history written by the losers
A dropped stitch in time
The indentation of knuckle on bread
Or flesh
A tug on the sleeve
A tug of the forelock
(A lingering whiff of humility)
A crisp-toasty fragment of ghost raked up in the embers
A pipe-stem on the tideline
Warmth of a seat just vacated
Devotional footsteps impressed upon slow-yielding stone
Suspicion’s bite-mark on a counterfeit coin
Scratch-scrawl on a toilet wall
Lipstick on a glass
A cheek
A collar
Or something red at any rate

(Here’s a trick I remember learning from a wardrobe mistress
Back when we still called them that
A bloodstain can be erased with spit
But only the spit of the one who bled
Find them and make them spit on the stain
Rub it in, rinse it off
Good as new – like witchcraft
Try it yourself at home)

Memory is cyclical
Is seasonal, tidal
Let’s take a walk on the shoreline
(Keeping our prescription-distance
Measured in metric or imperial – as you see fit)
With your eyes downcast
Get on your hands and knees
(That’s if you’re able
The management regrets to inform that this riverbank
Is not yet fully accessible )
Scrabble in the dirt
Mudlark for your ancestors
Where history’s butts, dog and fag ends jostle and smoosh
Temporalities colliding
Writhing, promiscuously
Like a bucket of eels

A riot
A rummage sale
An anarchive

Fag Ends

End to end
I begin
Bone by bone
To lay you out
Marking a path across the floor
Across the Atlantic
Across time
Each negative space
Nested with the memory of a breath
Each stem
Imprinted with the memory of a bite
A suck
A kiss
An in-out gasp
A cough
A laugh
A silent sigh
A voice
I set you down
Fragment to fragment, each shard
A palimpsest
Of a lost whole
A breath
A body
A life
A breadcrumb trail flung out
To snake from my hot here-and-now hands
Following a path determined by a whim
A game
And the infinite, quantum indeterminables
Of a gritty, sloping floor in haunted Deptford
A rope bridge slung across time’s shifty, tidal sands
Fragile and flexible as a spine
With many tails
A map
With no destination
A constellation
Resembling the fossil skeleton
Of some phantastical multi-headed chimerical monster
In search of a tail
In search of an ending
Of a self
To swallow


I’ve been studying
How to summon the queer dead
My hyper-extended not-quite family
My transcestors

Learning how to be
A kind of careful resurrectionist
(there are other, blunter, hard-edged words
– grave-robber, body-snatcher, muck-raker…)

I’ve been practising, honing my technique, by
Digging crumbs out of the cracks between the tiles with an old teaspoon
Scribbling in the margins of overdue library books
Listening to punk music on my headphones in stately homes
Eavesdropping in the National Portrait Gallery
Eating home-harvested honey straight from the spoon
Dressing up as a dirty ghost and
Haunting the dripping basements of bars
Owned by cis gay white men

The Ancient Greeks
Who knew a thing or two
About history, theatre, and the afterlife
Told us
That the dead
Must not be looked at directly
And so instead

I’ve been learning
To bake gingerbread
Showing off on Instagram
Mastering an old card-trick from the magician who lives across the hall
and gets my pronouns wrong
Through mudlarked pipe-shards
Walking in second-hand shoes
Carefully stepping on the paving cracks

I’ve been re-tuning my ear
To the white noise
Attending to interference
To the pea beneath the mattress
The stone in the shoe
The lump in the throat
The dropped stitch
The footnote

Dropped hints
Wink-wink nudges
Squinting, half-glimpsing
Through kaleidoscope tears
Trying to hold my gaze
Trying not to blink first
Trying not to flush away
The motes that trouble the mind’s eye

Burnt Offerings

Those things’ll kill you, she said
Or I will, if I catch you at it again
It’s bad for your health
The King says so
And besides, what will people think?

-But it makes me feel awake, alive
It helps me to sleep
Sweetens my dreams
Shows me which way the wind is blowing

I hide the paraphernalia beneath my mattress
Sharp herbal scent mingling with the Ladies Bedstraw,
fresh this month

Light a candle instead
Watch the wick dance in melting fat
And pretend to pray


A ghost in my mouth
A trace
The memory of a taste
Of tobacco
Of London clay
Of your dead breath
Your voice
Your silence
Haunting my lungs


These images and text document Fag Ends, an ongoing body of work exploring a queered relationship to time, history and the archive, working with fragments of clay tobacco pipes mud-larked from the Thames.

An installation and series of performances based on this work will be performed at the VSL gallery in Southeast London, spring 2021.

All images and text copyright E.M. Parry.

With thanks to EM Williams for photography support on Fag Ends portrait shots, and mudlarking adventures.