Wednesday, 16 February 2011

A field student smells





Broadwick Street, Soho. 16/2/11

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I have been immersed in the history of London’s effluvial water, devising or compiling an illustrated time line to accompany a talk about the depiction of water borne diseases in the 19th century. Into this stygian pool I will dive again at the conclusion of this emanation.
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In the 19th century, London’s water was described as ‘Monster Soup’; every drop burgeoning with minute aquatic beasties. The creatures and their causes and effects were envisioned by cartoonists of the time. Where did their monstrous visions come from? How did e.g. George Cruikshank and James Gillray summon their menageries of graphically extra-excremental cartoon beings?
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The microscope might have been an important tool in influencing their satirical and parodist magic. It was an apparatus with which to conjure the bestial minutiae of London’s fetid and faecal waters. Well over a hundred years before Messrs Gillray and Cruikshank, Robert Hooke (a resident and architect of London) was a pioneer of the microscopic world. In 1665 he published, Micrographia, a collection of microscope enabled illustrations of small creatures; fleas, lice, gnats etc.
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In Hooke’s magnified visions a familiar creepy crawly world must have been made grotesquely unfamiliar and so introduced a whole new vocabulary of the horrible and awful. Who consumed these images? How popular and widespread did they become? Were the malodorous plebeians of London and elsewhere gathering around Punch magazines tut tutting in agreement with the cartoon renderings of the dire 19th century sanitation?
A less visual, more olfactory sense of disease occupied the public and popular imagination. Despite the progress in optical/microscope technology, along with the progressive epidemiological field work of John Snow (mid 19th century cholera) authoritative miasmatic theories of disease persisted. The effect of this was to delay and confuse reform and development of public health especially in relation to water and sanitation.
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Many epidemiological schools emphasised susceptibility (of some) to cholera was due to the poverty, irregular lives and underdeveloped sense of personal hygiene of particular social groups. Water provided by ‘reputable’ water companies could not, it was claimed, be the source of such a disease. That the 1866 East End cholera outbreak was caused by polluted water taken from the Lea by East London Waterworks Company continues to be disputed.
Surfs of this history have thrown up some intriguing theories as to the nature of water borne disease. This blog post is a good example.
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http://msemmamorris.blogspot.com/2009/11/map-of-cholera-1866.html
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The author attempts to prove a medical hypothesis concerning a link between the East London Waterworks Company (Old Ford Works) and the 1866 cholera outbreak. The mapping process involves extrapolation to include some additional theorisation about reversible laws of physics.
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Lost and Found in E17 needs to shift attention back to more visceral content.
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I’m unsure to what extent the fertile Lea Valley was or has been additionally fertilised by the night soils of the city. This may be a question to pose to the avant-gardeners, Organiclea, at Hawkwood, way up North in the hills of Chingford. However, in the psycho terrain of Lost and Found in E17, its author considers himself to be the captain of an ether sludge u-boat ever ready to dive further into the depths of the Black Deep.


2 comments:

  1. Great research
    best wishes and don't drink the water
    David

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  2. Thanks David. When diving I've tried to keep my mouth shut. There is a cartoon, Monster Soup, by William Heath, published in 1828 - easily available to view online - which is the basis for a short talk I'm giving on Sunday. All being well, we will conclude the talk with some exquisite corpse drawing, making up our own water bugs and beasties. To the Field and all who study in her.

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