Friday, September 25, 2015

Cholera to Clean Water: a brief reflection on narrative and history

Often times when you get close to a subject you get to a point where you can predict (if not recite along to) most documentaries, talks and lectures. You still go because a) there will inevitably be a new tidbit or two, b) it’s good to test your memory and 3) you’ll meet likeminded people with whom you can enthuse about said subject. It’s a bit like dusting off and re-reading A Christmas Carol every year.

But sometimes you get something that completely surprises you.

Howard Benge’s presentation “From Cholera to Clean Water” at the Guildhall Library was refreshingly new, obscure and in-depth. With a title like that I had expected the usual much loved story: John Snow discovers source of cholera at pump in Soho, Bazalgette builds the sewers and Britain reigns supreme in its superior systems of sanitation. But Bazelgette (often referred to as ‘unsung hero’) had only a cameo role in a much broader history of London’s quest for clean water and made way for other even lesser known men.

Sir Francis Burdette, MP, 1770-1844, who was campaigning for better water quality as early as 1827, when water piped from the Thames into people’s homes was full of all London’s refuse.

James Simpson, Engineer, 1799-1869, who researched water filtration around the country and developed systems for Lambeth Water Company which were widely copied.

John Snow… but not the old story we already know. The pump in soho was mentioned in passing, but only as prefface to the crowning achievement: his Grand Experiment of 1855. Snow compared the supplies of the two main water companies in South London: Lambeth Water Company, which drew its water from a relatively clean area upstream, and Southwark & Vauxhall Water Company which drew its water from downstream near Battersea. Comparing Cholera Deaths in the households, Snow estimated an average of 315 deaths/10,000 in Southwark, and a mere 37/10,000 amongst those supplied by Lambeth.

Why don’t we normally hear all these details? Why do some stories get chosen and not others? I suppose it all comes down to luck and narrative. The Pump in Soho is a nice detective story… one man on a mission. A small location. Colourful native characters. Evidence neatly pointing to the obvious conclusion, and a resolution (the handle is taken of the pump.) Elementary my dear Watson. Meanwhile, the Grand Experiment, though historically significant is more clinical and less personal.

Similarly with Bazalgette: we have a sudden and dramatic problem (The Great Stink) with a sudden dramatic solution (a sewer that is a marvel of modern engineering). There is, for some reason more romance in sewage than in water filtration. It's easier to be a hero by fixing a problem than by pre-empting it.

Near the beginning of the talk Benge made the observation that 19th century London was still operating on Medieval systems. In another 200 years when progress we can't envision has been made perhaps some researcher standing in a similar room will say "21st Century London was still operating on its Victorian Systems." I wonder which of our stories and heros they will remember.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


A ticket to Dismaland: £5
Train to get there from London: £57.60
Art that inspired both glee and fear: Priceless.

I’ve never been to Disnyland and I don’t know very much about Banksy, but Dismaland intrigued me. The pictures of burnt out castles and distorted mermaids appealed to my love of contradictions and the slightly morbid. So off I went not really knowing what to expect.

Weston Supermare is a sort of typical English seaside town. It’s got a pier and lots of shops selling colourful beach toys and ice cream. I had been hoping for gloomy weather to fit the mood of my adventure, but the day was beautifully sunny with barely a cloud in sight. I was probably the only person disappointed by this.

Dismaland begins with the universal theme park experience: queuing. All of those of us who had been lucky enough to get advance tickets waited across the street from the park for our timed entry at 2 o’clock. Once we made it to the front and had our bags checked by the real (not too dismal) security guard we were taken across the street in groups by the (also not too dismal) lollypop man.

Entering Dismaland we had to go through ‘security’ with lots of grumpy guards hanging about giving us grief. I got pulled aside and scanned by one of them because I looked too happy. She told me that my rainbow socks were an “interesting wardrobe choice” and finally let me in, wishing me “a dismal day.”

Inside the park the spires of the burnt out castle rose ahead just as promised. Despite the earlier queues it wasn’t too crowded… busy but not suffocating.

I started by going through a series of galleries. Directly inside the entrance were signs with flashing messages that would have been perfect for slightly subversive fortune cookies:

It is better to be naïve than jaded.  
 You are clueless in your dreams.  
 Abuse of power comes as no surprise.   
Push yourself to the limit. 
Don’t place too much trust in experts. 
Confusing yourself is a way to stay honest.

As I wandered round the corner I came across a sign by some seemingly out of use bumper cars: Dance of Death: On the hour and every 15 minutes thereafter. My timing was apparently impeccable, because just then the lights popped on and a hooded figure with a scythe rode out on one of the cars. After cruising slowly around crashing into things disco lights popped on and he (I don’t know why I assume it was a he) zoomed around laughing hysterically while “Stayin alive” blared in the background. Then it all shut down and we were back to the dark room.

The rest of the gallery contained some potted plants made from ready meal boxes  and a fetus covered in corporate logos in a vending machine.

The next gallery was mostly paintings and photographs, most with a very blatant global warming message. A few favorites:

There was also a car with cross-stitch embroidery on the bonnet.

The third room had a vast model village with blinking lights (mostly from police cars) throughout ... The sort of thing you might find at a post-apocalyptic model railway show: "Jimmy Cauty’s hand crafted miniature world will delight and amaze (and potentially cause seizures in persons sensitive to strobe lighting)."

Emerging from the gallery it took a few moments to re-adjust to the sunlight. I came out right next to the pond with the refugee boats. For a pound you can take a turn to steer them towards the white cliffs of Dover, though they don't always do what you expect them to. There were a few bodies floating in the murky water as well. This was the most dissonant thing for me. How far removed (by time or geography) do you have to be from an experience to make it feel comfortable to parody? What role does intention play in that?

In an interview about the park Banksy said:

"I feel like my generation was the first to deal with the mass media beaming the world’s problems to us in real time... Mostly we’ve chosen to deal with this by cocooning ourselves, that we can live with the guilt. But why should children be immune from the idea that to maintain our standard of living other children have to die trapped in the hulls of boats in the bottom of the Mediterranean? The grown-ups might have convinced themselves small incremental change and buying organic tomatoes is enough, but passing that mindset onto the next generation doesn’t feel like good parenting."

I couldn’t go to the park without trying a ride, so I hopped on the carousel. It was mostly pretty normal, except for one horse that had been strung up. Next to him was the figure of a butcher sitting on a box that said “lasagna.” The carousel went slightly faster than most I have been on… or perhaps that was my imagination.

Around the other side of the park were a lot of booths and tents handing out pamphlets. I wasn’t entirely clear whether they were for actual causes and organizations or if they were parodies. Where does art end and real life begin? Can you have one without the other?

I went through the Pocket Money Loans shop put together by Darren Cullen of The room offered adverts for children from aging cream (to get rid of the symptoms of youth) to my personal favorite: rent-to-own gobstoppers: “everlasting payment plans! Dissolve your finances today!”

Finally I went through the enchanted castle. 

"Step inside a fairytale and see how it feels to be a real princess. Souvenir photos available" 

It was the only thing in the park that I had to queue to get into, but it moved pretty quickly. Inside we went through a dark hallway and then came through to a room of flashing lights. 

Being a princess isn't all bluebirds and balls. Cinderella’s carriage was overturned in the middle, and she was hanging limp out the window. The only light was provided by the strobe-like flashing of the paparazzi’s cameras. A grim tribute to Princess Diana.

On the way out I played knock the anvil off the pedestal. The silent attendant handed me three pingpong balls and loomed over me, rolling his eyes as I threw them. Even though I failed to hit the anvil, let alone knock it down he gave me a pin that said “strive for excellence”

Dismaland is to be experienced rather than written about. Banksey says art can be loud and obvious, and critics tend not to like this because it leaves nothing for them to do.
"Fundamentally I disagree with the charge that art is bad if it’s too easy to understand [...] I think there’s space for art to be loud, crass and obvious. If it looks like the rantings of an angry adolescent what’s wrong with that? [...] As far as I’m concerned there are too many things we need to discuss in the actual world before I start making abstract art." 

Maybe it was the influence of Dismaland that lead to the lively debates with a stranger on the train home about immigration and the role of the economy. There are so many things so obviously wrong with society. The sacred place of the economy and our fear of breaking it.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Angelina's: Another Good Loo

On my last morning in Paris I had one final piece of business to attend to. A friend had recommended the Chocolate Chaud at Angelina's, and it also happened to be one of Jonathan Routh's 3-star loos of Paris. 

Angelina's (Tea Room), 226 Rue de Rivoli 
"Hommes is through a mirror-door at the back of the ground floor which also leads to the kitchens. There are two toilets here, one marked Personnel which contains a stoop for the staff, the other marked Hommes which has in it one of the prettiest lavatory bowls in Paris – a Puritas that is patterned in a very delicate wild flower motif. This is a clean simple room which perfectly sets off this rare collector's item. 
"Dames too should not be omitted from the toileteer's itinerary. Up the red-carpetted stairs to a pretty room with a good view of the Rue outside. Of especial note: The full length mirrors and polished brass liquid soap dispensers. And in the loos themselves, the elegant wooden containers for loo paper (I suspect them of being the handiwork of Lachasse Fils)."
For the most part the loos did not disappoint. The upstairs ladies did indeed have a view, full length mirrors and wooden containers (painted in white and gold.) The gents downstairs, however, though pretty enough had a normal boring toilet and not a floral Puritas. For all I know it is still back there somewhere but my French, alas, is not strong enough to explain to the waitstaff why it is important that I see a particular vintage toilet (which they may or may not know about to begin with.)

Both levels actually have accommodation for both genders. I think the Dames come out slightly ahead as the upstairs gents lack the view and the full-length mirrors (apparently gents don't need to spend as long checking themselves head to toe?)

The hot chocolate and cakes were both delicious. In fact, I have accomplished the unthinkable on this trip... eaten so much cake and pastry that the thought of any more makes me a tad queasy. Thank goodness for being back in England!

Musée des Égouts: An adventure in the Paris Sewers

The Musée des Égouts is about as visceral a sewer experience as you can get without literally plunging in. Constructed in a functioning sewer you can see the effluent of Paris flowing past under your feet. My favorite thing were the bits of toilet paper, which look like ghostly jellyfish.

It doesn't actually smell that bad. It does smell of sewer, but sewer smell not the same as being in a porta-potty that hadn't been cleaned for a week, or a music festival urinal. It's more of a musty cave smell. Organic?

Paris's overarching narrative is much the same as London's: Things got crowded, disease spread, sewers were constructed.

I'm writing this post in a bit of a hurry (hopefully will get a chance to add more later) so for now I'll let the photos do the talking!