Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sewerfolk, Ratspeakers, Anesthesia and a Load of Tosh

I have been reading an illuminating book by Stephen Smith called Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets. In it, the author investigates a variety places and histories that took place beneath the streets of London. I am in the chapter on the rivers/sewers, which seem to have been the same for much of London’s history. Many of the small rivers that were once open and flowing were covered over at various points in London’s history. Fleet street was actually the location of the Fleet River, which was slowly covered over, a process completed by the 1800s. Its fragrance had been a source of complaints since the Middle Ages and covering the river converted what was already a sewer to an underground sewer.

Apparently the gases created by the sewage built up and 1846 part of Fleet Street blew up and sewage flowed in the streets. In the 1850s, after the introduction of flush toilets, the increase in liquid sewage caused an overflow of the cesspits directly into the into rain gutters and into the Thames and various small London rivers. Increased industrialization brought waste from slaughterhouses and tanneries. By 1855, the warm summer heated the sewage filled rivers and the overpowering smell came to be known as “the Great Stink.” (There are a couple of books about the Great Stink as well here and here.) The heat made the smell so intolerable that bags drenched in chloroform of lime where hung outside the windows of Parliament in an attempt to mask the smell. Sewer reform would soon be a political imperative. By 1859, then engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, had been commissioned to overhaul the sewers of London. This is also about the same time doctors proved that cholera was being carried by contaminated drinking water. They had previously failed to understand that the waste was not being carried out to the ocean because the movement of the tides through the estuaries pushed the sewage back up into the rivers where it continued to build up.

What was fascinating to me about the chapter was the long history of people who work on or in the sewers, often the incredibly poor in earlier eras. There are a series of colorful names for those who made a living in the sewers, flushers, rakers, mudlarks, and toshers, thus the phrase “a load of tosh.” Many of the poorest sought to rake through waste to try and retrieve valuables The Sewer folk who find the Marquis certainly seem to be in this direct tradition (or perhaps they are just the same toshers).

Sewers are also the haven of rats, but Smith does much to resuscitate the image of rats, certainly they were in the sewers and blamed as plague carriers but they were also apparently popular entertainment in pubs in rat or rat/dog fights in that cockfighting and bear-baiting tradition. I find it funny that humans have such distaste both for rats and pigeons because both among the creatures that not only survive but also thrive amid human waste.

One interesting tidbit that I should mention but probably will do better in a section on Richard is his name. Mayhew. Henry Mayhew was an anthropologist who wrote a book, London Labour and the London Poor, in which he transcribes his 1852 interviews with rakers as well as many people on the fringes of society. The rakers told him some fairly tall tales about the rats in the sewers and how dangerous and large they were which seems like it can’t be coincidental to the naming of Richard Mayhew. In fact, Gaiman includes many facts and historical details about the history of London and its sewers and underground world that might seem odd in a fantasy (although history is also in some measure storytelling) but it is one grounded in reality as well, or rather, many realities some from Richard’s present and some from the 1850s and some are even more ancient. The ratspeakers are in some sense a counterpart to the rakers but they are also their own invention, particularly their code and their communication and apparent fealty to a society of rats. There is a sense that the ratspeakers operate on the border of London Above and London Below.

Anesthesia is an interesting case, I part we only know that her name is that because of Richard who hears it as Anesthesia when she says it while eating the banana she has stolen from Richard’s bag. She is unique among those in London below for having a background that we actually get to hear and it is one of neglect, abusing and running away that fits with how we understand people falling through the cracks in a society and not receiving help. Anesthesia has fallen through the cracks and found better at the hands of rats than humans. I found myself thinking about what it means that night takes her. Why her? She is also one of the few people in London Below who shows kindness to Richard in spite of her own life. She also is the only person who seems to have come from London above in any recent history.

Her name, Anesthesia, which is a means of numbing or putting someone to sleep generally before a medical procedure, is of course appropriate because when Richard enters London below he feels anesthetized. He has entered a borderland where all that he understands has shifted slightly and become dreamlike and unreal.

In addition to all these subterranean tidbits, is the story of the Beast of London. There is an historical story, one that is told to the Marquis de Carabas by Old Bailey, about a pig that escaped to the sewers of London and became enormous there living on garbage. The historical tale has him reemerge a much larger pig and sold for a profit the Gaiman version has the pig become the beast of London. Fed in the dark by the refuse of a city over centuries, it is easy to imagine how a creature of cast-offs would become fearsome and terrifying.


  1. Is Anesthesia the only one in London Below who is recently come from Above? Or the only one that we know about? We were talking about the fop not _really_ being from the 18th century...but where _is_ he from?

  2. That is an interesting question Rick. I am not sure. The fop is described as someone trying to be a fop who has outfitted himself at a thrift store. My point earlier was that Anesthesia is the only one for whom we are given a previous history in the novel. I think that gives room for the actor, director and designers to talk about where/when exactly the fop is from.


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