Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Pumping Poo with Panache

William Morris was a Londoner through and through, despite his occasional nostalgic yearnings for a quiet rural life on the upper Thames, so he would probably have been as fascinated and horrified as I was by BBC 2’s stunning programme on ‘The Five Billion Pound Super Sewer’ last night.  As Bazalgette’s Victorian sewer system, designed for two million people, collapses under the weight of the current insane levels of immigration into the capital – population now nine million, and estimated to rise to thirteen million imminently – so London’s rivers are polluted in the most obscene and extensive manner.  Morris’s beloved river Lea, where he used to fish as a lad, was particularly nauseating in this programme, with its regular discharges of shit and sanitary towels making it a festering mess of e-coli bacteria, and the Thames now receives 39 million tons of toxic sewage as overflow every year.  Not much hope for the salmon of the opening chapter of News from Nowhere then!

The new sewage project is indeed awesome – a seven-meter-wide, twenty-mile-long tunnel deep under the Thames which will carry a vast, unimaginable torrent of shit which then needs to be pumped spectacularly upwards, like a reverse waterfall, to the surface in east London to be processed.  The enormous machines and shafts, the extraordinary engineering feats and problems – all created a powerful image of what one might well term a ‘technological sublime’ in this programme, which reminded me of some of the science-fictional terraforming achievements in Kim Stanley Robinson’s great Mars trilogy of the 1990s.  But Morris might have been pleased to note that, however formidable the machines and resourceful the engineers, it is always in the end a single chap using his hands who needs to finish off the job: a man with a 50p sponge sanding down great walls of concrete to the necessary meticulous finish, or a solitary diver under the Thames removing river silt with his shovel. 

One can’t help but thrill to the giant gadgets, but the only real environmental solution, on a planet whose human population now vastly exceeds its biological carrying capacity, is a massive reduction in human numbers, a ‘great clearing’ of the city along the lines of that in News from Nowhere itself.  If we marched five or six million Londoners up the M1 to Scotland, which sees itself as needing additional people, then we might have a chance of building a human-scale, decent capital city again.  Until then, the Great Wen will continue to be an economic, moral, political and scatological force for corruption and calamity in our society.


Tony Pinkney said...

I should note that my title for this post is a colourful phrase used by one of the engineers on the programme, which remains available on BBC i-player,

Tony Pinkney said...

And the second programme in the series took us very close to Morris's Kelmscott House, as we saw volunteers embark on the rather disgusting task of picking out some 5000 soiled wet wipes from the bank of the Thames on the southern side of Hammersmith Bridge. They make their way there from a nearby sewer overflow outlet, apparently. William Guest, I'd advise you not to pop into the river for an early morning dip any time soon!