Thursday, January 6, 2011

Down in the Bowels of London

One of my favourite readers, Minette of Scent Signals, sent me the following link which guides us down to the London...sewers! The Guardian video follows Rob Smith, head flusher at Thames Water, who explains how 'fat bergs' (amalgamations of illegally dumped cooking oil and wet wipes) are the culprits for frequent blockage and even flooding. But some more pleasant emanations are still possible, as he attests!

Not a pleasant subject on the whole you might say, even though those sewers have inspired writers Robotham, Gaiman and Updale (Lost, Neverwhere and Montmorency series respectively) as well as video games, with their dark and sinister atmosphere. But the interesting thing is that the London sewer system goes back to the Victorian Age. In the 1850s over 400000 tonnes of sewage were flushed into the River Thames each day, thus rendering the river biologically dead. The ...stinky culmination came in the summer of 1858, during which the smell of untreated human waste was extraordinarily potent in central London, forever giving the time frame the nickname "the Great Stink" and reinforcing the theory of "miasmatic air" as a cause for cholera to last well until at least the 1880s, when Koch re-discovered the bacterium responsible for the disease. (The predominance of the theory of the air carrying miasmata through odours is well documented in Alain Corbin's book The Fragrant and the Foul). Soon Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned chief engineer to oversee the construction of the new London sewage system in 1859.

The London sewers are stratographed in regions of class demarcations, nevertheless; certainly a distinction obvious in British society in general in the past, less so now, except for the respective...effluvium, so to speak. The fearless in the eye of dirt Rob Smith describes the emanations that bypass methane for a more pleasant odour as those coming from the "affluent effluent" ~the stuck remnants of perfumed body oils and bath washes which are used by the richer folks; certain areas smell of expensive oils that carry their aromatic heritage down the drain...
The London sewage system holds a special fascination apparently, a mix of the Gothic tradition with the metamodern V for Vendetta flair for underground scheming: With such names of "hot spots" as Devil's Gate, Itself, Labyrinth, and Rubix, is it any wonder perfume managed to sneak in there too?

Next post will be a review & lucky draw for a new niche perfume. Stay tuned!

sketch of Faraday and Father Thames via wikimedia commons


  1. I love this.

    I love things underground, I love hidden aspects of the workings of our cultures. The New York Times recently ran a piece on New York underground, also going through their sewers, but from and adventurer angle (replete with Norwegian explorer!). I'm all about water.

    LOL at "affluent effluent." I once was one of a small team who made a "How it Works" video for the employees of a large worldwide waste management company. That's where the word "effluent" first swirled into my consciousness. It's not difficult to see why the "miasma" theory, erm, lodged itself in people's fancy.

    There's a book called by Steven Johson, "The Ghost Map"--a great history of Snow's process to ditch the miasma theory and get to the heart of the cholera epidemic...which was, as it turns out, also water related. Drinking water. From a problematically effluent well, recycling the illness, as it were.

  2. Valentine04:48

    I love tidbits such as this as well, although I can't imagine a giant MIX of various perfumes would ever smell all that opulent and pleasant, no matter how expensive.

  3. S,

    isn't it a fascinating subject indeed? Much of the futuristic comic books genre is taking shape in such locales, which I find psychologically astound taking in mind the audience of comic books (there must be some universal desire to delve deep when one is very young I guess, literally and figuratively). It also reminds me of Hellstrom's Hive which is a sociological study as good as any in its scope. Have you read it?
    Now I need to seek The Ghost Map! :-)

  4. Valentine,

    love to provide unusual tidbits to you!
    It must smell very good by way of contrast I would assume, LOL! Imagine all the methane and the putrid water and then...whoa...bath oils. Reminds me of a joke in my own language about recruiters for Hell showing the candidates only the mad frolicking before having them submerged in excrement, saying "that was only the intermission" .

  5. gosh I love London above ground but below ground rather scares me! I have a friend whose great great Grandfather or someone designed the sewers, which is pretty cool I think!

  6. I have not read Hellstrom's Hive, though I am familiar with Dune. I'll seek it out.

    The zeitgeist(s) are descending, it seems. I've been ruminating on underground (always fascinated, but entered the foreground again when I read the NYT article) and in particular about a show (American, 1970's) called "The Night Stalker" which involved vampires and underground Seattle. Was very enamored of both musing through keyboard; shall alert you if anything comes of it. :)

  7. Rose,

    it's mentioned in "Naked" I believe (the film) that one is never more than a couple of meters further off the rats in London (because the underground labyrinths are so old and so many). That does put things in a certain perspective.
    How utterly cool about your great great grandfather, did he keep a journal or something? It would be most interesting if such a thing survived.

  8. S,

    it's worth a read, it has a Lord of the Flies vibe, if you like that sort of thing.

    Wish I had a chance of seeing the Night Stalker, Seattle is a city which has a special appeal to me (probably because of the rain and the whole "culture") and vampires are a favourite subject. Is it uploaded on Youtube by any chance? (I discovered some older Greek TV series I had nostalgized about recently and it's whetted my appetite...) Thanks for keeping me in mind, I'm counting on you!


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