London Clay: A trip to the Deep City. By Tom Chivers. Double Day; 464 pages; £ 20
MeN1858 London After the banks of the Thames were clogged with raw sewage, they were hit by a “great stink.” Exacerbated by heat waves, the stench was overwhelming. To dispel it, and to dispel the threat of cholera, civil engineer Joseph Bazarjet created a sewer system that is aging but still in use today. As part of this Victorian megaproject, the River Fleet, which was only an open drainage channel at the time, was covered with cement and was invisible to the general public.
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More than a century and a half after the stream disappeared, most Londoners may have never heard of it or knew that the fleet was nearly 100 meters wide at the point where it joined the Thames. There is almost no sex. Residents may be surprised to learn that Westminster Abbey, where monarchs and other valuable people are buried, was built on what was an island in the 13th century. The city is littered with such transformations and unexpected stories.
“London Clay” Tom Chivers delves into the streets of the capital and reveals some of these stories. Much of his journey takes place on the ground, but in one passage he descends into a “stinking” fleet and is wisely dressed in protective gear. He finds a sweeter scent chasing the Ambrook River in the woods of southern London and is intrigued by the basement of a government building rumored to be bubbling Tyburn. Forgotten waterways are not the only interest of him. He tramples around Bermondsey, once surrounded by swamps, and looks into a sinkhole with an abandoned subway station.
A lifelong Londoner (and poet), Chivers is familiar with local history and geography. His book bounces off Jack the Ripper via the Elizabeth Theater to Geoffrey Chaucer, incorporating the peculiarities of contemporary architectural Mishmash and passers-by. A memorable assortment of modern characters includes environmentalists, youth workers, and Roman Catholic priests. The floating focus is sometimes confusing and at other times fascinating.
The anchor of the book is below it. As the title suggests, London’s geology is dominated by clay, along with sand and gravel in the bedrock of river valleys. Chivers overlays the street map with colors that represent different foundations. “Half eccentric artwork, half elementary school science projects” is the starting point for a digression. Geological quirks may not be of interest to everyone, but his travelbooks and memoirs open the reader’s eyes to what is around and below them.
The joy of exploration is in line with thoughtful meditation about sadness. Looking back on her teenage mother’s death, Chivers visited her grave and recalled her efforts to protect the 16th-century theater grounds. He likens the scars of sorrow to the flow of a river that you can’t see. “It remains, is a trace of a buried waterway, and gives its shape to the land that is your life after it is lost.” ■■
This article was published in the Printed Books and Arts section under the heading “What’s Under”.
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