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The Great Stink of 2005

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There is a very persuasive argument for nominating Sir Joseph Bazalgette as Britain's Man of The Millennium. So far as I can remember he didn't even figure in the top fifty when such lists were being compiled five years ago. While Newton, Brunel, Shakespeare, Darwin, Chaplin, Lennon and Churchill jostled for what motor-racing calls Pole Position, Bazalgette (to change metaphorical horses midstream) didn't so much as show for a place.

So who was Sir Joseph? Well, he was the man who undertook what was in its time the greatest engineering project on earth, the construction of London's Sewage System. So unromantic, so banausic, so thoroughly unappealing, yet for all that imponderably heroic. He moved millions of tons of earth, built hundreds of miles of sewers and cured the metropolis of the cholera, typhoid and stink that had characterised it during the first half of the nineteenth century. I think of him this week because I cannot but help turn my mind to Smell. It is the most deeply embarrassing of all the five senses, the one which most clearly tells us precisely who and what we are.

British reporters I know who have been to New Orleans speak of one thing above all others. The dreadful, vomit-inducing stench. Not just the stench of death, which heaven knows is dreadful enough, but the stench of life. Anyone within fifty yards of the lavatories in the Convention Center or the Superdome threw up uncontrollably. Only the smallest quantity of molecules from that terrible, terrible place needed to hit the olfactory bulb to cause an involuntary and absolute upchucking. The resultant puke itself, of course, added to the savage osmic holocaust which more than crime, more than despair, more than the appalling sense of victimisation and neglect turned those places (ghastly enough in their nylon carpeted, vending-machine, strip-lit healthy incarnations) into an idea of hell that the combined imaginations of Hieronymus Bosch, Dante and Antonin Artaud could never conjure up.

This is what we are: great sacks of disgusting, evil-smelling suppurating filth. It is bad enough that every one of us seems socially and tribally as likely to default to a Jack as to a Ralph or a Piggy. It is bad enough that we distrust and fear our neighbours. But all these we can intellectually finesse, rationalise and redeem. Bad education, social deprivation, abuse -- these are, in theory, curable and surely at least addressable. One day we may be able to fix all these indicators and causes of unsociable, violent and destructive behaviour. We will never alter this one ineluctable fact about ourselves however. We stink. My god how we hate to be reminded of it and my god how much that reluctance to face it should tell us about its centrality to our existecne. We shower, we smear and spray ourselves with product, we defecate into artfully designed porcelain which takes away the ordure invisibly and more or less odourlessly. When we die we are embalmed, burned or interred before we have time to pong. Take away the sewage systems, take away the running water, take away the morticians and within days our stink is beyond that which can be endured. Every cell of our body is composed of stuff so malodorous than one whiff of it will empty stomachs at fifty paces. It doesn't matter whether we are white, black, rich, poor, virtuous, vicious, healthy or addled. We all stink. "My offence is rank, it smells to heaven" as Claudius said for us all. It is our true original sin, the primal shame that haunts us.

It used to be believed (on good rational grounds) that it was smell that caused cholera, plague and all the pestilences we now know to be caused by water and air borne bacilli, microbes and parasites. The pocketful of posies carried by judges to ward off Newgate (prison) Fever, the children's songs that commemorate it to this day and the pomanders, spices and air 'fresheners' (ludicrous misnomer) that we still favour all attest to this association with smell, disease and death. Beaudelaire and his decadent contemporaries were obsessed with perfumes of all kinds, heady and disgusting. The Miasma theory of disease wasn't disproved until another candidate for Greatest of Britons, John Snow, locked the pump in London's Soho causing a complete diminution in the parish's cholera infection rate, demonstrating thereby that it was bad water, not bad smell that was killing Londoners and once more showing how empiricism beats rationality any day of the week. The Great Stink of 1858 had caused Parliament (which being on the fetid banks of the Thames had been forced to adjourn) to disgorge the money to Bazalgette and allow him to get on with his sewers. We now know that stink is a correlative of disaster, death and disease, not a cause.

Maybe Civilisation itself is best described as that level of sophistication that most distances us from our smell. Katrina shows that we have a long way to go. London has its equivalent of the Louisiana levees, in its Thames Barrier. Many voices learned in engineering and geography are suggesting that it too will soon prove as inadequate as the Embankments of New Orleans, and then my dears, you will smell us across the Atlantic.

I do not know that my blog has anything to suggest, except that I would love to read a great book of transhistorical comparative scholarship that tackled this business of smell head on. Rather as alcohol has been the unspoken secret of so many politicians, warriors and artists, too vulgar to mention in serious biography, so smell is the unspoken secret of us all, too vulgar to mention in (popular) books of social anthropology, engineering or history.

I had just finished this ramble when I thought of my sometime friend, the writer and journalist Julia Reed, who showed me a marvellous time in New Orleans a few years ago when I was writing a cinematic adaptation of the great New Orleans novel, John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. One of Julia's favourite quotations was from William Makepeace Thackeray who had this to say of New Orleans, calling it a place "where of all the Cities in the world, you can eat the most and suffer the least." Nothing is true for ever, eh?

I have had no word of Julia and I hope she has survived the Great Stink of 2005 with an unbroken spirit.