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Ben Gwalchmai

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Why The Fatberg Should Remind Us of the Great Stink of Victorian Times

Posted: 28/08/2013 14:54

In 1858, London's air was so polluted that they called it the year of The Great Stink. Back then, we didn't have proper sewers and it was only in that year that parliament finally agreed that London needed them.

In this year, 2013, Thames Water says they need to raise prices to build the Thames Tideway Tunnel even though their 2012 profit was over 130 million pounds and only a proportion of that goes back to shareholders - a great stink, indeed.

Don't get me wrong, I know that Thames Water provide a valuable service and walk the difficult line between providing and profit but so many of the decisions of large companies since 2008, just 150 years after 1858, have seemed like the great stink of what Victorians called 'miasma' wafting from company mouthpieces. Take Servern Trent Water, another water and sewers company 'struggling' - struggle they may but that didn't stop them paying £19million to financial advisors recently, even though no representative for Severn Trent officially met with the people who wanted to buy them out. Presumably £19m was spent on coffee and croissants for Severn to meet with Rothschild, Citi, Barclays, Morgan Stanley, Herbert Smith, and Tulchan.

Silly me, I forgot that these things cost a million per hour for everyone to quickly say 'No' and couldn't possibly be done by someone within the company...or is that a miasmic vision of mine? Ho hum, what do I know? I'm only a writer who grew up around Severn Trent's core area, the Severn river.

Again, I'm really not picking on Severn Trent - especially as their customers enjoy some of the cheapest rates in the country - but it's just another example of the Dickensian amounts of money that are spent, without true transparency, in large companies.

Perhaps the advances in reusing what we flush away could help rid us of this miasmic vision of these companies? They're certainly trying and, sincerely, this is a good thing.

In July 2013, Thames Water found a 'fatberg' as big as a bus. If left untreated, great deals of fat could have oozed out of drains, another oddly Dickensian thought: as if the 'fat of the land' was now the inverse and a much darker, no longer free, 'fat of the West' that lay in wait to remind us of how much we waste and just how rich we are. Thames Water announced it in August, encouraging people not to flush or wash away their oils and fats with the semi-slogan 'Bin it, don't block it'. They now have an agreement to use the fat build up in sewers as biomass fuel to create green energy - what's fascinating, and fascinatingly Victorian, about all this is twofold: the people who rid our sewers of these blockages still have their Victorian moniker, 'flushers'; and Victorian Londoners would sell as much of their waste as was possible to different people like rag and bone men, etc.

My point here isn't to pick on Thames of Severn Trent Water but you may have noticed how many times I've used the words Dickensian, Victorian, flush, and that's because we're still too Victorian in Britain and I'm going to be reminding everyone of it until the last vestiges of Victorian societal divisions, Victorian monetary practices, and the fetishization of the Victorian era are flushed away. Possibly to be reused as cultural biomass and burnt into something more useful.

Ben Gwalchmai's debut novel Purefinder, set in 1858, will be released on December 13th, 2013.

 
 
 

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