Beneath London’s streets

Deep beneath the streets of London lurks a monster that knows how Londoners live today–what they eat, how they clean themselves, what gets them through the day. What will it do with the information? Either write a cheesy screenplay and make a fortune or come up through the plumbing and eat everyone it finds. Probably the first, because it’s eating well. It doesn’t need human flesh, which not only fights back but screams. Or at least it does in cheesy movies.

The monster’s called a fatberg, and in the best tradition of promos for cheesy movies, I’ve misrepresented it. The biggest one (roughly 750 meters long) has already been killed and autopsied. The ones still lurking underground are smaller, and although they’re growing, not one of them is alive. 

Fatbergs are made of solidified fat, sewage, and all-purpose gunk. And they’re clogging up the sewers not just in London but in other big cities around the country. So British TV being what it is, the big one was autopsied for our viewing pleasure.

This isn’t just an irrelevant photo, it’s stolen from an earlier post. I’m putting this post together on a toy typewriter and, what the hell, it’s available. Given the topic, we could do with a few flowers.

What do I mean about British TV being like it is? Well, it does a lot of nonfiction, which ranges from glorious to turn-the-channel. This one was somewhere in between. Beyond that, I’m not the best person to sum it up. I figured I was being vague enough that I could get away without having to explain what I meant, thanks. It may not have been enlightening, but at least it’s accurate.

Fatbergs form when a bit of cooking fat–or several gallons of the stuff–is poured down the drain and combines with the calcium it finds in the water to form a solid, which then sticks to a rough bit of sewer wall. Then a wet wipe comes along (wet wipes were the villains of the piece) and sticks to it. Then more fat sticks to that, and anything else that gets flushed down the toilet piles in on top, on the bottom, and on the sides, and while you’re still watching British TV, deep below you is 750 feet of solid crap–in the literal sense of the word– and other stuff blocking the sewer. Whatever gets flushed down the sewer, except the purest of liquids, can be part of a fatberg.

Isn’t your Friday getting off to a great start? Isn’t it just uplifting to read Notes?

So what did the autopsy tell us about how folks live in London? Well, they use cocaine, ibuprofen, caffeine, syringes and needles, paracetamol, morphine, heroin, condoms, magic mushrooms, steroids and gym supplements, tampons, amphetamines, sweetcorn, and hair tonic.

It’s the hair tonic that does the damage.

You didn’t think anyone has used hair tonic since the 1950s? Or maybe that was the 1920s? I didn’t either. I suspect they mean–to use a technical phrase–is hair goop. Or what the British call products. Not even hair products, just products. As if nothing else gets produced in the country.

A word about paracetemol: When my partner, Wild Thing, and I first moved to Britain, we figured it was some strange oracle the British consulted about aches and pains. Every country has its superstitions. As an outsider, you learn to live with them and not make funny faces. It turns out, though, that it’s what Americans know by the brand name Tylenol.

It’s not that Americans are more heavily oriented to brand names than the British. The British call vacuum cleaners hoovers, and using one to clean the floor is hoovering. Presumably Hoover made the first vacuum cleaners to hit the market here. The thing is, the British and Americans choose different things to call by brand names, making us sound eccentric to each other. But that’s a different post. Let’s go back to the fatberg.

So, Londoners use paracetemol. They also eat out a lot, because restaurants are the source of a lot of that cooking oil. The pattern is use, cool (presumably), pour down drain. Of course, home cooks contribute their share. From each according to their deep fat fryer…

And our bodies contribute whatever we put into them. The residue from prescription medicines, including antibiotics and estrogen. All those lovely bugs that cause digestive disasters–e coli, campylobacter, listeria. And antibiotic-resistant bacteria, although those may not come directly from us but from the uncontrolled combination of antibiotics and biota. I don’t know that. I’m guessing.

The things we drink out of also makes a contribution. Plasticisers from cups and plastic bottles can  mimic estrogens, and they’re in there too. The ones that don’t get trapped in fatbergs make their way into the rivers and oceans, doing some very weird stuff to the fish.   

The folks whose job it is to free up the sewers do it the modern way: by hand. They suit up, drop down into the sewers with shovels, and chop pieces off, which their buddies up top winch to street level. They manage not to pass out from the smell, or even complain about it. The only high-tech part of the job (and we’re relying on my memory here, which is an iffy proposition) is the gizmo (I love high-tech words) that beeps when it finds a toxic gas buildup.

On screen, they were not only good humored but very funny. In short, they’re heroes.

What can we learn from this? That image tourists have of historic Britain? It’s not the whole picture.

72 thoughts on “Beneath London’s streets

  1. Sounds like Britain has found a way to update the above-ground sewage of medieval times. Heaven knows what our sewers know about us. We’ve made money off digging through people’s trash. Hopefully this is not the next step in celebrity watching

    Liked by 5 people

    • The London sewers, I think, are Victorian and they’re struggling to keep up with population growth as well as wet wipes and cooking oil. I don’t think they’re much use for celebrity watching. It’s too hard to tell what belonged to who.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh, brilliant!
        Long ago, when I lived in London, I went underground with a couple of suited-up chaps. But it was long before modern fatbergs. Back then ( and I admit, I did not go into actually sewer stuff) it was just damp, spooky, ratty. A sort of Doctor Who gltch-on-the-transporter.
        But today? With all the crap we are adding to our waterways and oceans…scary!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. That is a lot in London’s sewers and it all sounds so hard to move. Wonder how much one gets paid to clean everything all up. Here in Australia we also go by paracetamol, or Panadol, which is the brand name.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I recently saw a recipe for something on a blog. The person recommended pouring the used oil from the cooking down the drain… I thought “NO! Are you crazy?!” Nearly left a comment but was too stunned to stay. This is gonna keep happening if people don’t wise up… Fatbergers… urgh!

    My parents, after frying anything non-meat/non-fish that had fat that would solidify, would wait til it cooled, separate the fat from the oil, pour the still-useable oil back into a bottle, and put the fat in the waste. Bad enough, I guess, putting it into landfill, but at least it wasn’t clogging up the oceans. As for all that plastic, don’t get me started.

    Love your flowers. Much prefer them to the… other.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I had originally assumed the fatbergs came from fat that solidified–butter, cream, meat fat, that kind of thing–and had no idea until recently that liquid fat could do that. I’ve never poured it down the drain (I don’t use much) but could understand why someone would think it’s okay. We can be so clueless, and so dangerous.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fortunately I read this after lunch, not during. The headline gave me a bit of a lead there. I remember reading about the hugest one they found, which blocked the sewer. I thought they broke that one up with water under pressure, but that might be my imagination and a certain unwillingness to increase my knowledge of such things.

    In response to your first visitor’s comment, I feel compelled to point out that medieval sewage was a lot less hazardous to health.

    Liked by 2 people

        • True. It’s another case of being grossed out by what other people do. I can’t help thinking of Europe of th period as hopelessly unsanitary, as if we were paragons of healthy living and good sense. We kill bacteria on our kitchen counters (and in out toilets–what are we planning to do in them that they need to be bug-free?) on the theory that somewhere among them are beasties that might do us harm, and as it turns out we’re doing ourselves harm.

          Liked by 2 people

  5. I saw the fatberg display in the Museum of London on a recent visit to the U.K.
    I did note that while the exhibition featured a dummy in full hazard gear the photographs of the chaps breaking the thing up with shovels showed them without the helmets, etc….probably too cumbersome in some of the narrower tunnels. Just don’t let the employer have these photographs when the operatives claim for damage to their health in later life.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ve heard of fatbergs, and there’s a piece of one in a museum:

    I just don’t understand people pouring fat down the drain. From when I was a child, I’ve always been taught never to do that, that it will gunk up the pipes. My Mom taught me to aways pour it into a jar, and throw the jar in the garbage when it gets full. And for restaurants, there are people who take used cooking oil and turn it into biodiesel, that can fuel diesel cars. So instead of pouring it down the drain, they could offer it for free on craigslist, and somebody would probably come pick it up for them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I expect storing it for someone to pick up and use is more trouble than pouring it down the drain. And fatbergs are someone else’s problem, so one we merrily go.

      We’re a difficult species, we humans.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wonder if drains are different in Britain. Where I live (a 1925 Chicago bungalow), we have a catch basin in a covered pit in the backyard. The more fat poured down the drain, the sooner that catch basin has to be cleaned. I’ve never done my own, but at my parents’ house I helped my dad do it, and as you’d expect from stories of fatbergs, it’s a disgusting job. Maybe some people just call a plumber and keep it out of sight and out of mind. I also put used fat in a jar or in the garbage, not down the drain.

        Also, I’ve worked in restaurant kitchens, and they have grease traps that have to be cleaned every month or two. Luckily, that was a job for dishwashers, not cooks, so I never had to. But the smell of the dishwashers after they’d cleaned the grease trap–ugh! I felt sorry for whoever they lived with having them take a shower and doing laundry in their home.

        The moral: Don’t pour fat down drains. The consequences can be much more immediate and have a bigger impact on your life than those impersonal fatbergs down in the communal sewers.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I once worked with someone who tried to cure a fat-plugged drain by tossing coffee grounds down the sink. I notice the trick hasn’t spread worldwide, so although she never did report back on how it went, which was probably wise, I think it’s safe to say it didn’t catch on.

          I think people used to reuse cooking oil until it became too nasty to use. It did leave them with less to pour away. I did that briefly when I was young, although having to judge when to throw the stuff out did give me a questionable kitchen moment or two. Now I’m of the jar in the trash school.


  7. I saw a trailer about that programme but I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. I wish I had now, having read your post – sounds like it was most informative! I’m afraid I’m guilty of using “product” on my hair, because it looks like a hideous bird’s nest otherwise. My hair is addicted to product.
    A few months ago Radio 1 sent one of their DJ’s to broadcast half an hour of his show from the sewer. It was gross, but also kind of funny, to hear him trying not to be sick. Apparently there were dead rats embedded in the fatberg as well as all the other trash.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Oh I have missed your post. My blogging time has been very short. I must go back reading previous posts too when I have time. This story made weird images in my head. But I had. Good laugh as always when I read your posts. Thanks! It’s a good Friday so far :)

    Liked by 2 people

  9. So glad you illustrated this post with some nice flowers rather than hideous fatbergs. I have see them and I think about them every time I washing my frying pan and I there is not enough oil to pour away into the food waste bin but there’s a coating…so I think of the fatbergs looming and growing underground!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. This is really interesting Ellen. I had never heard of Fatbergs here in Canada, and looked up your “Guardian link”. Much respect to the workers who do go down into the sewers with their shovels. Not for the faint of heart (or stomach).

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Can’t think of a single witty comment for this one. We’re just back from a camping trip and we discovered some new ways folks have found to be utter disgusting slobs. You really don’t want to hear about it.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I recently reviewed a novel set in an *alternative* nineteenth century British town where a kid got work “toshing.” (Did anyone ever actually call it that?) That meant fishing out objects for resale from the sewer.

    Sounds as if nobody’s been doing that lately.

    On the plus side–hey, fuel problem solved! Fat burns!

    Liked by 3 people

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