Yesterday, Tim Adams at the Guardian wrote one of the most fantastic pieces of local news I’ve read recently. It’s about the fatberg under Whitechapel. If you’ve never heard of a fatberg, it’s the horrifying sewer equivalent of an arterial blockage. Instead of fat clogging one’s arteries, a mixture of wet wipes flushed down the toilet and grease washed down the drain unite in the sewers into a massive blob, with other detritus (used condoms, hypodermic needles, rubbish) and occasional small creatures going along for the ride. There have been a few around London, causing millions of pounds of damage. The article gives this one a number of catchy nicknames – the Whitechapel Behemoth, the East End Mammoth, the Leviathan – and brings in the history of Bazalgette’s sewer works, social history, and the fact that part of it has been conserved and will be in a Museum of London exhibit (called Fatberg!), opening February 9. This led me down so many paths of thought. First: just go read the article. Adams should win some kind of prize for such engaging writing.
One of the reasons this feels like a distinctly London story, is the horrible history of the city and its effluent, a history that until recently seemed happily confined to the past. Prior to autumn 2016, the last time we looked so hard at sewage was during the Great Stink of 1858, when a combination of a hot and dry summer and the practice of discharging the raw sewage of a fast-growing population directly into the Thames, turned the river brown and saw sewage 10ft-deep at the river’s margins. MPs were forced to debate in Parliament with handkerchiefs over their faces. Cholera and typhoid were epidemic. Like the burghers of Hamelin menaced by rats, the government charged the director of metropolitan works, Joseph Bazalgette, with solving the problem. With 318 million bricks and over the course of 16 years he did just that.
Second, he brings up one of my favorite tropes (sub-tropes?): the idea that the apocalypse is best represented by or in London. This is a trope frequently played with in the weird fiction of China Mieville (UnLunDun, London’s Overthrow), Will Self (The Book of Dave), and Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere). The city is often its own character, growing, heaving, digesting. Mieville lectured on cities – London in particular – as palimpsests of history, dark places where occasionally you can see clarity scratching through and enlightening one tiny moment. In this case, the fatberg has covered all the bases, becoming a metonym for London itself. It has grown underground, a vulgar beast composed of waste typical of the modern era, and pressed itself into our lives. The fact that it’s going on display completes its cycle. The fatberg, a chthonic monster, has found its way into the light and has made all of the disgusting practices of modern life (particularly those we shy away from, not just sex and drugs and excrement, but overuse of resources and inability to care about our environmental impact) clear to us. Not only clear, but enshrined in a temple of culture. Yes, this is the apocalypse – not the one we imagined, with fiery rain and four horsemen, but the one in which we reckon with the disasters of our own making, right in the heart of the city.
Third, I should mention that the urban relationship with fat goes deeper, and the history of Les Innocents Cemetery in Paris is worth mentioning. Just as London had a Great Stink, so did the Les Halles neighborhood, but theirs was caused by a buildup of human bodies not-quite-buried in the cemetery. There were too many bodies stacked too deep to decompose properly and so they rotted in the ground (which wasn’t dirt at that point, just more bodies) into a mass of bones and adipocere. There was a city-wide effort in 1786 to relocate the bones into ancient mine shafts, which are now the Paris Catacombs. The remaining fat was reportedly used to make soap and candles. Yes, like in Fight Club.
Fourth, it drew a link to another recent article on dystopias, beginning with the wonderful phrase:
This is not the dystopia we were promised.
You thought it would be like Black Mirror, right? With a fascist state and complete surveillance and biohacking. It’s not, though. This dystopia is fatbergs, and fatbergs are us. The fatberg is a perfect representation of the horror and fascination of modern urban life. We live in excess, we waste, and a team of flushers that, in an ideal world, would be mechanized and WALL-E like, are very real human beings have to go and shovel it out by hand while clothed in Hazmat suits. And it’s in a museum.*
*(I should make it clear that I am so excited that’s it’s going into MOL and I will be one of the first to see it.)
UPDATE: Here’s an article from the MOL asking “how do you solve a problem like the fatberg?”
It’s an especially difficult challenge for us as conservators, because we have to protect not just the fatberg, but also ourselves and our visitors. The fatberg in its current state is an extremely hazardous material, teeming with bacteria and releasing small amounts of toxic gases. Given the amount of rubbish that people pump into London’s sewage system, we can’t know exactly what sort of dangers are lurking within the ‘berg. The sample of fatberg we’ve taken might contain hypodermic needles, condoms, or sanitary materials, and are certainly capable of spreading disease.