Sewers are perhaps the most enigmatic of urban infrastructures. Most citizens of modern cities are aware of their existence, yet few could accurately describe their layout or appearance.
Above me, the heavy round metal doors into this underworld shake with a pinging metallic scream that reverbs down these watery tunnels, slowly fading into a seemingly endless succession of dull thuds that migrate down the street above us, some racing black cab speeding a jilted lover home from the pub after the last trains have stopped running. This overworld scenario interests me far more interpreted from below the undercarraige of the cab, little bits of shit-sticky mud dislodging themselves from the freshly-pried manhole cover edges, plopping onto my bald head. Cue a shuddering shake, aural spell broken.
Water races around my feet faster than the cab, pinning my waders in a strange plastic comfort to my legs, little bits of used toilet paper and raw sewage which we lovingly call “the fresh” blocked by my PVC barrier, pushing around me angrily in an effort to make it down this old river and into the Thames like salmon swimming not toward their spawning ground but the river Styx where the boat will sink halfway across and they will float lazily to the bottom, never to move again. As drainers, we learn to love the waste just as we learn to love the trash left behind in the streets of London at 4am on a Friday night. It is the detritus of passion passion for life that staves off our impending deaths, as Michael Dibdin writes in Cosi Fan Tutti:
This place reeks of mortality.
I thought it reeked of rancid oil and bad drains.
It comes to the same thing in the end.
At some point in London’s Victorian Age, the separation between “river” and “sewer” became blurred. Technically, I am standing in the River Westbourne which no one but sewer workers and daring drainers have seen for a hundred and fifty years. Despite the fact that no one has drank the water from this river since the 1400s, it remains a vital waterway of this city, a throbbing vein of live humanness, rushing underneath our unknowing feet as we run to work on the pavement above. Seeing it is a reminder that, as Gay Hawkins writes, “our rituals of cleansing and disposal are enfolded with this landscape, our personal secrets are implicated in the public secret of sanitation.” This misadventure into the bureau of public secrets is the newest in our chain of London infiltrations, our most recent attempts to make sure that this city is documented from every possible angle through experience, fear and love. Just as I wouldn’t wipe the ass of somebody else’s baby, only London’s sewers interest me.
We view the stigma of what is flushes on these journeys both literally and socially. Our preferred mode of access to these hidden waterways is hiding in plain sight and the classism of London society works in our favour, with both police and the public ignoring everyone dressed in high-vis and a hard hat, benign foreign workers who make their living in places where no “respectable” Londoner would ever step foot. Our team of 4 digs into their toolbelts of large screwdriver, t-shaped keys and crowbars to break the seals into underdiscovered territory, finding what the city forgot existed, our brazen crew seemingly as hidden as this river when we actually look like we work for a living.
The addiction to infiltration does not lay in the adrenaline rush of the experience. Infiltration creates unwieldy complications, difficult mental junctions and moments of crises that confuse, inspire and complicate our existence. My second identity as the underclass, the role that I play to gain access to urban secrets, is slowly becoming my primary identity. My clothing, my language, my social class, all now defined by my behaviour “on the job.” Leaving this tunnel late on this night (early the next morning?), we were greeted by “real” workers at a tube station who tossed slight nods our direction, eyeing us with confused interest, suspicion, respect and likely some revulsion given we were covered in underground wetness that smelled even worse than the rank pub toilet across the street.
We have been systematically exploring London’s subterranean features for the last few months, cracking every stormdrain, abandoned railway, cable tunnel and sewer we can find in the city – elements of this urban environment that Steven Smith, in his book Underground London, calls “London’s best kept secrets.” We know why. Not only are they some of the most beautiful and surreal places in the city, they are also the most foul.
The sewer is a place for alterier cartography, a place where no one may reside but where one can pass through, cameras capturing endless angles of the oldly new, remapping our mental conceptions of where the verticality of the city begins and ends. Our embodied experiences move like the stinking water, shifting from one chamber to the next, chalk marks on walls marking our way home, level after level of underground run-off continually sinking into what we imagine to be an endless succession of metal grates covered in dried up cakes of unknown substances, unidentifiable pieces of fabric and scraps of food. Matthew Gandy, in his article The Paris sewers and the rationalization of urban space contends that “by tracing the history of water in urban space, we can begin to develop a fuller understanding of changing relations between the body and urban form under the impetus of capitalist urbanization.” Pretty sure he wrote that line from the Paris sewers.
We trace these cultural lines and flows, finding here that nature and culture drift at the same rate in an interdependent foulness. London’s legendary sewer rats are in full effect tonight, running from us in a terrified scamper, climbing the round slippery walls of the tunnel in inexplicable ways and disappearing into holes we can’t even see into. I want to explore what they can see. At one point, some sort of nest is disturbed and they came at our lights, their little claws feet screeching all around us. Staying in the middle of the slimy sticky mud, shit and runoff where the rats won’t swim was clearly our best option.
We spent 4 hours sliding around these chambers, building up our immune system with aching stomachs upon exit and mouth sores to come. As we emerged I felt, as I often have, that tonight was another attempt to document my own disappearance in the course of making the city reappear in alternative iterations. As I sink deeper into my PhD, I sink deeper in this city, still so in love that there isn’t even room for another human being. I can only hope that either I or the thesis emerges at the end of this torrid love affair, unsure I will survive the potential breakup. Until then.
Own the night.
Cherish these secrets.
Wield this power.
Love this life.
This author’s endeavour should be to make the Past, the sense of all the dead Londons that have gone to the producing this child of all the ages, like a constant ground-bass beneath the higher notes of the Present.
-Ford Madox Ford, The Soul of London