The filth and the fury
London: Washed-out, colourless and damply resigned: London is stoically whimpering under this drawn-out economic recession. The season is cloudy and cold with drizzle and a face-smarting wind saps our energy in incremental gusts. Grey and dull shades of browns and blues, their vibrancies muted to stain of Victorian brickwork, dominate, from the miserable business suits that men (and, increasingly, women) choose to wear, to the shape-muffling ‘sports’-wear, jeans and jumpers and black black coats.
Travelling by train through the cluttered concrete of community housing, tower blocks and failed estates, London appears ugly, a symptom of its unplanned sprawling growth from a small Roman core, founded 2000 years ago. It’s now the biggest city in Europe and the most ethnically diverse in the world, with as many as 14 million people crowded into its messy reaches.
Despite their varied shapes, skin colours, languages and clothes, Londoners share a characteristic expression, a posture or attitude, which looks rather like defeat. It’s a hunched shouldered, apologetic and essentially pessimistic poise. And nobody carries it off better – despite the best efforts of Richard Branson and the like, Britons have never really pulled off the positivity and self-affirmation that Americans excel at.
There was a brief time between Things Could Only Get Better and the end of the Blair Witch Project when we flirted with confidence and success. Then there was the big Brown mess and, still unbelievably to me (having been out of the country for 2+ years) the return of the Tories. Now, there is such thing as Society, but it’s Big Society and a private affair for the individual to contemplate and not something for the state to interfere with. Besides, the government is busy trying recover the billions of money we owe as a nation, although not from the banks who lost it, but from those money-wasting Society nonsenses like health, education, poor people and so on.
Despite it all, the sun occasionally peaks through and people smile, they’re friendly and quick to help, they read as they commute and walk with purpose to appointments – little loitering in London.
We’ve been back in the city for a week now and already Mexico feels like a half-remembered place from many months ago. London has changed in small ways, and I marvel at them. My favourite is the new ‘Boris’ bikes allow commuters to rent bicycles across the central zone.
The Wellcome Trust has an exhibition on dirt, a subject with which I have become uncomfortably intimate during my travels in the developing world. The gallery splits this vast subject – encompassing everything from dust to bacteria – into six city-led themes from Delft in the Netherlands to Staten Island in the US. The fascinating exhibits include Leeuwenhoek’s descriptions of the “little animals” he saw in scrapings of “batter” from his teeth looking through his self-made microscope: the first sightings of bacteria.
In the London room, John Snow’s beautiful map is displayed, which perfectly shows the link between the city’s sewage-contaminated water supply and cholera deaths in the epidemic of 1854 – a link that was ignored for decades, although the handle of the Broad Street pump, at the heart of the outbreak, was removed.
Cholera, a bacteria infection that leads to prolific watery diarrhoea is still common in the unsanitary developing world, particularly in overcrowded slums and after a disaster, such as the Haiti earthquake – while we were in Nairobi, there was a bad outbreak in the Kibera slum. The cholera bacterium doesn’t kill; it’s the rapid dehydration that’s fatal, so lives could be saved easily using cheap rehydration salts, but these are rarely provided in time.
Proving that you can polish a turd, five large slabs of pressed faecal matter dominate a dimly lit section of the Indian room like grave markers: ashes to ashes… The highlight of the Indian section (India is by far the filthiest country I’ve ever visited) was a wonderful film by Paromita Vohra looking at the country’s lack of toilets, particularly for women. It is a major reason why girls miss out on schooling in the developing world.
We have come across our own encounters with filth and the consequences of poor sanitation around the world. Here’s a couple of clips from Bangladesh:
… and India:
The exhibition has a strong focus on the social side of dealing with our excrement, from the London scavengers to the Indian ‘Untouchables’, who manually clear human waste from pit latrines. The German room extends this theme in a series of exhibits displaying the Nazis’ extrapolation of hygiene theory towards their ideology of social cleansing. Even now, during our journey, people of a different tribe, caste or nationality are often described to me as “dirty” or as eating “unclean” food (although, eating dirt has its own proponents).
The exhibition ends with redemption: Fresh Kills on Staten Island is the world’s largest municipal dump and it is being transformed into a park. We’ve seen similar transformations from waste to usefulness, including a man who’s made an island out of rubbish, a woman who built a library from plastic bags, recyclers in India and a novel use for guinea pig poo.