Archive for the ‘London’ Category

London has a dirty secret.

Levels of the harmful air pollutant nitrogen dioxide at a city-center monitoring station are the highest in Europe. Concentrations are greater even than in Beijing, where expatriates have dubbed the city’s smog the “airpocalypse.”

It’s the law of unintended consequences at work. European Union efforts to fight climate change favored diesel fuel over gasoline because it emits less carbon dioxide, or CO2. However, diesel’s contaminants have swamped benefits from measures that include a toll drivers pay to enter central London, a thriving bike-hire program and growing public-transport network.

“Successive governments knew more than 10 years ago that diesel was producing all these harmful pollutants, but they myopically plowed on with their CO2 agenda,” said Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, a nonprofit group. “It’s been a catastrophe for air pollution, and that’s not too strong a word. It’s a public-health catastrophe.”

Tiny particles called PM2.5s probably killed 3,389 people in London in 2010, the government agency Public Health England said in April. Like nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, they come from diesel combustion. Because the pollutants are found together, it’s hard to identify deaths attributable only to NO2, said Jeremy Langrish, a clinical lecturer in cardiology at the University of Edinburgh.

“Exposure to air pollution is associated with increases in deaths from cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and strokes,” Langrish said. “It’s associated with respiratory problems like asthma.”

The World Health Organization says NO2 can inflame the airways and worsen bronchitis in children.

London isn’t alone in having bad air in Europe, where 301 sites breached the EU’s NO2 limits in 2012, including seven in the British capital. Paris, Rome, Athens, Madrid, Brussels and Berlin also had places that exceeded the ceiling. The second and third-worst sites among 1,513 monitoring stations were both in Stuttgart after London’s Marylebone Road.

“Nitrogen dioxide is a problem that you get in all big cities with a lot of traffic,” said Alberto Gonzalez Ortiz, project manager for air quality at the European Environment Agency, which is based in Copenhagen. “In many cases it’s gotten worse because of the new fleets of diesel cars.”

The EU limits NO2 to a maximum of 40 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The concentration on Marylebone Road, a stone’s throw from Regent’s Park, was almost 94 micrograms in 2012, according to the most recent data from the EEA.

The level for the site last year was 81 micrograms, and it’s averaging 83 micrograms this year, according to King’s College London. In 1998, when the King’s College data begins, it was 92. That’s about the time the switch to diesel started.

In contrast, Beijing had a concentration of 56 micrograms last year, according to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. The Chinese capital has a worse problem with other pollutants, registering almost triple the level of PM10 particles (bigger than PM2.5s) as on Marylebone Road.

London’s air has improved since the “pea-souper” fogs in the 1800s and 1900s. In 1952, the so-called Great Smog killed 4,000 people. East Londoners couldn’t see their feet through a choking blanket of smoke caused when cold air trapped industrial emissions and coal fumes. That led to passage of a clean-air law in 1956, seven years before the U.S. Clean Air Act.

Air pollution and particulates are “invisible and there isn’t the same pressure on politicians” as in the 1950s, said Joan Walley, an opposition Labour Party lawmaker who leads the Parliament’s cross-party Environmental Audit Committee. “It requires a long-term strategy.”

Walley’s committee began an inquiry on May 2 to assess government efforts to improve air quality, calling for written submissions by June 5.

While the government blamed an April spike in pollution on dust from the Sahara alongside domestic emissions and particles from continental Europe, the prevailing winds mean London typically exports its own problem.

“It’s not rocket science to figure out that we contribute mostly on westerly winds to our neighbors,” said Martin Williams, professor of air quality at Kings College.

Europe-wide policy triggered the problem. The “dieselisation” of London’s cars began with an agreement between car manufacturers and the EU in 1998 that aimed to lower the average CO2 emissions of new vehicles. Because of diesel’s greater fuel economy, it increased in favor.

The European Commission, the EU regulatory arm, “is and always has been technologically neutral,” said Joe Hennon, a spokesman. “It does not favor diesel over petrol-powered cars. How to achieve CO2 reductions is up to member states.”

EU rules enforced since 2000 allowed diesel cars to spew more than three times the amount of oxides of nitrogen including NO2 as those using gasoline. New rules that took effect in September narrow that gap.

“The challenge is much greater that we had thought just a few years ago,” said Matthew Pencharz, environment and energy adviser to London Mayor Boris Johnson. “A lot of that is due to a well-meant EU policy that failed. We’re stuck now with these diesel cars — about half our cars are diesel, whereas 10, 15 years ago, it was lower than 10 percent.”

The U.K. Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2011 estimated it would take London until 2025 to comply with the 2010 rules. The government didn’t ask for an extension to comply because doing so comes with a requirement to show it was possible by 2015.

For Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett, the solution is simple: Get people out of their cars.

“Fifty-six percent of journeys we make in Britain are less than 5 miles,” Bennett said in an interview. “If you turn a significant percentage of those into walking and cycling journeys, then you’ve made huge progress.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at amorales2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at landberg@bloomberg.net James Hertling

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-27/london-s-dirty-secret-pollutes-like-beijing-airpocalyse.html

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By Leah Price

More than 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. Fewer than half receive any treatment; even fewer have access to psychotherapy. Around the turn of the millennium, antidepressants became the most prescribed kind of drug in the United States. In the United Kingdom, 1 in 6 adults has taken one.

But what if a scientist were to discover a treatment that required minimal time and training to administer, and didn’t have the side effects of drugs? In 2003, a psychiatrist in Wales became convinced that he had. Dr. Neil Frude noticed that some patients, frustrated by year-long waits for treatment, were reading up on depression in the meantime. And of the more than 100,000 self-help books in print, a handful often seemed to work.

This June, a program was launched that’s allowing National Health Service doctors across England to act upon Frude’s insight. The twist is that the books are not just being recommended, they’re being “prescribed.” If your primary care physician diagnoses you with “mild to moderate” depression, one of her options is now to scribble a title on a prescription pad. You take the torn-off sheet not to the pharmacy but to your local library, where it can be exchanged for a copy of “Overcoming Depression,” “Mind Over Mood,” or “The Feeling Good Handbook.” And depression is only one of over a dozen conditions treated. Other titles endorsed by the program include “Break Free from OCD,” “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway,” “Getting Better Bit(e) by Bit(e),” and “How to Stop Worrying.”

The NHS’s Books on Prescription program is only the highest-profile example of a broader boom in “bibliotherapy.” The word is everywhere in Britain this year, although—or because—it means different things to different people. In London, a painter, a poet, and a former bookstore manager have teamed up to offer over-the-counter “bibliotherapy consultations”: after being quizzed about their literary tastes and personal problems, the worried well-heeled pay 80 pounds for a customized reading list. At the Reading Agency, a charity that developed and administers Books on Prescription, a second program called Mood-Boosting Books recommends fiction and poetry. The NHS’s public health and mental health budgets also fund nonprofits such as The Reader Organization, which gathers people who are unemployed, imprisoned, old, or just lonely to read poems and fiction aloud to one another.

At best, Books on Prescription looks like a win-win for both patients and book lovers. It boosts mental health while also bringing new library users in the door. Libraries loaned out NHS-approved self-help books 100,000 times in the first three months of the program; no doubt some of their borrowers must have picked up a novel or a memoir en route to the circulation desk. At worst, it’s hard to see what harm the program can do. Unlike drugs, books carry no risk of side effects like weight gain, dampened libido, or nausea (unless you read in the car).

For book lovers, an organization with as much clout as the NHS would seem to be a welcome ally. Yet its initiatives raise troubling questions about why exactly a society should value reading. What’s lost when a bookshelf is repurposed as a medicine cabinet—and when a therapist’s job gets outsourced to the page?

In 1916, the clergyman Samuel Crothers coined the term “bibliotherapy,” positing tongue-in-cheek that “a book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific.” In the intervening century, doctors, nurses, librarians, and social workers have more seriously championed “bibliopathy,” “bibliocounseling,” “biblioguidance,” and “literatherapy”—all variations on the notion that reading can heal.

Only recently, however, have the mental health effects of one genre—self-help books—been rigorously studied. As early as 1997, a randomized trial found bibliotherapy supervised by therapists no less effective in treating unipolar depression than individual or group therapy. More surprisingly, a 2007 literature review by the same researcher found that books treated anxiety just as effectively without a therapist’s guidance as with it. A 2004 meta-analysis comparing bibliotherapy for anxiety and depression to short-term talk therapy found books “as effective as professional treatment of relatively short duration.”

None of this means a book can outperform a therapist, even if it can underbid him. A 2012 meta-analysis of anxiety disorders concluding that “comparing self-help with waiting list gave a significant effect size of 0.84 in favour of self-help” nevertheless cautioned that “comparison of self-help with therapist-administered treatments revealed a significant difference in favour of the latter.” Translation: A book does worse than a therapist, but it’s better than nothing. And in the short term, at least, nothing is what many patients get.

Books on Prescription can be understood as an extension of larger changes in psychiatry over the past few decades. For most of the 20th century, psychodynamic therapy placed more emphasis on the therapist-patient relationship than on the content of the therapist’s words. More recently, insurers’ interest in cutting costs and researchers’ interest in protocols that can be measured and replicated have combined to nudge treatment toward short-term, standardized methods such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. Books take this trajectory to its logical conclusion. If your aim is less to help patients explore the underlying causes of their condition than to offer step-by-step instructions for managing it, then who cares whether the exercises emanate from a mouth, a manual, or even a smartphone app?

But even therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy require the patient to feel recognized and understood by another human being. Asked how a printed page can mimic that face-to-face encounter, Frude comes up with an unexpected word: “magic.” The best books give the illusion of listening and caring, he explains, because authors who are also clinicians can draw on years of experience interacting with patients to leave each reader saying “that book was about me.” He does acknowledge that not every case fits books “off the peg” (or off the rack, as we say in the United States). But it’s a striking metaphor to choose—one that makes psychodynamic therapy sound like a luxury good as unattainable as Savile Row tailoring.

Where Frude sees magic, a cynic might smell pragmatism. Even short-term cognitive-behavioral therapy costs more than a $24.95 hardcover. But in any case, many patients read whether or not they have the NHS’s blessing. If recommended titles crowd out the misinformation that patients might otherwise stumble upon, whether in print or online, Books on Prescription will already have helped.

It’s hard not to notice that Books on Prescription was developed in the same years when American universities began to offer MOOCs, or massive open online courses. Even if an online course lacks the give-and-take of a seminar, it’s better than nothing. Like Books on Prescription, MOOCs scale up an activity whose face-to-face version was traditionally out of reach of the masses. Also like Books on Prescription, MOOCs create a cost-effective alternative that may eventually squeeze out personal contact even at the high end of the market.

That concern aside, it’s no surprise that self-help books can help the self. That literature might help, however, is a more controversial proposition. The other half of the Reading Agency’s two-pronged Reading Well initiative, Mood-Boosting Books, promotes fiction, poetry, and memoirs. Its annual list of “good reads for people who are anxious or depressed” mixes titles that represent characters experiencing anxiety or depression (Mark Haddon’s “A Spot of Bother”) with others calculated to combat those conditions. Some go for laughs (Sue Townsend’s “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾”); others, such as “A Street Cat Named Bob” and “The Bad Dog’s Diary,” read like printouts of PetTube.com. Others are darker and more demanding: Reading Well anointed Alice Munro’s short stories as a selection before the Nobel Prize Committee did.

The Reading Agency’s endorsement of imaginative reading stops short of recommending specific titles. Its website bristles with disclaimers that the works of literature are nominated by reading groups rather than tested by scientists. Yet the charity has given Mood-Boosting Books prestige—and the NHS has put hard cash behind them as well, providing some libraries with grants to purchase the recommended works of literature along with the “prescribed” self-help titles.

I ask Judith Shipman, who runs the Mood-Boosting Books program, whether recommending books “for people who are anxious or depressed” implies that poems or novels can treat those conditions. “I don’t think we could claim that they are therapy or a substitute for therapy,” she hazards after a long pause. “But for those who don’t quite need therapy, Mood-Boosting Books could be a nice little lift.”

Today it might seem commonplace to suggest that books are good for you. In the longer view, though, the hope that both literature and practical nonfiction can cure reverses an older belief by doctors that reading could cause physical and mental illness. In 1867, one expert cautioned that taking a book to bed could “injure your eyes, your brain, your nervous system.” Some social reformers proposed regulating books as if they were drugs. In 1883, the New York State Legislature debated whether to fine “any person who shall sell, loan, or give to any minor under sixteen years of age any dime novel or book of fiction, without first obtaining the written consent of the parent or guardian of such a minor.” As late as 1889, one politician called fiction “moral poison.”

As radio, TV, gaming, and eventually the Internet began to compete with books, though, fiction-reading came to look wholesome by comparison. Today, with only half of Americans reading any book for pleasure in a given year, reading is finding new champions from an unlikely quarter: science. This year, Science published a study concluding that reading about fictional characters increases empathy; in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” the psychologist Steven Pinker correlated the rise of imaginative literature with a centuries-long decline in violence. And while correlation doesn’t imply causation, randomized trials have also attempted to link fiction-reading to physical health. In a 2008 study of 81 preteens, girls assigned fiction in which characters eat balanced breakfasts ended up with a lower body mass index than the control group. The Reading Well website itself cites a 2009 study that compared heart rates and muscle tension before and after various activities and found that reading is “68% better at reducing stress levels than listening to music; 100% more effective than drinking a cup of tea.” The numbers may be less telling than the fact that someone would think to compare books to tea in the first place.

It’s too early to predict the long-term effects of bibliotherapy programs. There’s little precedent for a government to make neuroscientists and psychiatrists the arbiters of what books should be read and why. And literary critics like me recoil from reducing the value of reading to a set of health metrics. But as library budgets shrink and any text longer than 140 characters gets crowded out by audio and video, white-coated experts may be the only ones prospective readers can hear. Racing to find out what happens next, seeing the world through a character’s eyes, wallowing in the play of language—all are becoming means to medical ends. Today, for an increasing number of people, the pleasures of reading require a doctor’s note.

http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/12/22/when-doctors-prescribe-books-heal-mind/H2mbhLnTJ3Gy96BS8TUgiL/story.html

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By Jasper Copping

An airline pilot has reported a near miss in which a “rugby ball”-shaped UFO passed within a few feet of his passenger jet while flying near Heathrow Airport.

The captain told the aviation authorities who have investigated the incident that he was certain the object was going to crash into his aircraft and ducked as it headed towards him.

The investigation has been unable to establish any earthly identity for the mysterious craft, which left the aircrew with no time to take evasive action.

The incident occurred while the A320 Airbus was cruising at 34,000ft, around 20 miles west of the airport, over the Berkshire countryside.

The captain spotted the object travelling towards the jet out of a left hand side, cockpit window, apparently heading directly for it.

A report into the incident states: “He was under the apprehension that they were on collision course with no time to react. His immediate reaction was to duck to the right and reach over to alert the FO (First Officer); there was no time to talk to alert him.”

It adds: “The Captain was fully expecting to experience some kind of impact with a conflicting aircraft.”

He told investigators he believes the object passes “within a few feet” above the jet.

He described it as being “cigar/rugby ball like” in shape, bright silver and apparently “metallic” in construction.

Once he had composed himself, he checked the aircraft’s instruments and contacted air traffic controllers to report the incident. However, there was no sign of the mystery craft.

The incident was investigated by the UK Airprox Board, which studies “near misses” involving aircraft in British airspace.

It checked data recordings to establish what other aircraft were in the area at the time, but eliminated them all from its quest to find out what had been responsible. It also ruled out meteorological balloons, after checking none were released in the vicinity. Toy balloons were also discounted, as they are not large enough to reach such heights. Military radar operators were also contacted but were unable to trace the reported object.

The sighting occurred in daylight, at around. 6.35pm on July 13. It has only emerged now, following publication of the report, which concluded it was “not possible to trace the object or determine the likely cause of the sighting”.

The report does not name the airline or flight involved. Even though it describes the aircraft as being “just to the west of Heathrow”, aviation experts believe that at such an altitude it would be unlikely to have taken off from, or be preparing to land at, the west London airport.

Instead, the A320, which is popular with many carriers, among them British Airways and Virgin, is likely to have been travelling between a regional airport elsewhere in the UK, and another on the Continent. The aircraft typically carry about 150 passengers.

The Ministry of Defence closed its UFO desk in December 2009, along with its hotline for reporting such sightings. Following that change, the Civil Aviation Authority took the decision that it would continue to look into such reports, from aircrew and air traffic controllers, because they could have implications for “flight safety”.

In 2012, the head of the National Air Traffic Control Services admitted staff detected around one unexplained flying object every month.

Dr David Clarke, a Sheffield Hallam academic and the UFO consultant for the National Archives, said: “The aviation authorities obviously think this is something they should continue to look into and if you are a regular air traveller, you are likely to agree.”

Dr Clarke, a sceptic on UFO issues, said: “This latest sighting is interesting, because it is detailed and clear. These pilots don’t file these reports for something and nothing. There was obviously something there.”

Chris Yates, an aviation consultant, said: “Although we assume when these things happen, a UFO is responsible, there is usually an explanation that materialises at some point.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/ufo/10551201/Jet-in-near-miss-with-UFO.html

Britain Blob Of Fat

Utility company Thames Water says it has discovered what it calls the biggest “fatberg” ever recorded in Britain — a 15-tonnes blob of congealed fat and baby wipes the size of a bus lodged in a sewer drain.

Thames Water says the mound of “wrongly flushed festering food fat mixed with wet wipes” was found under under London Road in Kingston, Surrey.

It took three weeks to clear the mass.

Gordon Hailwood, a sewer contract manager for Thames Water, said if it had not been discovered in time, raw sewage could have started to spurt out of manholes across Kingston.

“While we’ve removed greater volumes of fat from under central London in the past, we’ve never seen a single, congealed lump of lard this big clogging our sewers before,” Hailwood said.

“Given we’ve got the biggest sewers and this is the biggest fatberg we’ve encountered, we reckon it has to be the biggest such berg in British history.

“The sewer was almost completely clogged with over 15 tonnes of fat.”

Thames Water deals with fatbergs all the time. But the company said Tuesday it was sharing news of the massive lard lump in hopes that customers will think twice about what they dump down the drain.

The blockage was discovered after residents in nearby flats complained that they couldn’t flush their toilets.

Closed circuit television investigations in London Road found the mound of fat had reduced the 70 x 48 centimetre sewer to just 5% of its normal capacity.

Thames Water was to begin repairing 20 metres of damaged pipe on Monday and work is expected to take up to six weeks to complete.

http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/08/06/how-a-monster-fatberg-clogged-a-london-sewer-weve-never-seen-a-single-lump-of-lard-this-big/

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If you find yourself walking in central London, think about this: not far beneath your feet there may well be human remains. On the edge of Charterhouse Square in the district of Farringdon, engineers were digging an access tunnel for the new Crossrail underground railway when they uncovered 12 skeletons.

“We suspected there might be bodies there,” says Crossrail’s chief archaeologist, Jay Carver. “When the excavation machine uncovered the first bones, we went in and excavated by hand.”

Historical documents suggest the then-lord mayor of London ordered an emergency burial ground to be prepared in Farringdon, in response to the Black Death sweeping Europe in the 14th century.

Relatively few people died in the early stages of the plague and so they were buried in an orderly, east-west orientation. In later years there were more dead, and in their graves bodies are essentially heaped on top of one another. The newly discovered Farringdon bodies, just 2.5 metres below the surface, are neatly oriented and were probably wrapped in shrouds and interred: the Crossrail team have found shroud pins but no fabric remains and no sign of coffins. Pottery found at the same depth as the bodies has been dated to before 1350.

The skeletons will now be removed to the Museum of London Archaeology, where radiocarbon dating will determine the approximate age of the bodies. Skeletons discovered in a plague pit in nearby Smithfield yielded DNA markers identifying the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis.

“Our evidence suggests these are burials associated with that period and therefore that these are people buried during the emergency black death period,” says Carver. “If we can find a signature of that bacterium it will provide some interesting new data about this important historical event.”

The Crossrail team have a licence from the Ministry of Justice allowing them to exhume the remains, and at some point the archaeologists will make a decision about curation. Will the skeletons be reburied?

“They may be placed in a charnel store in a crypt, in case future generations want to study them,” says Carver. “It’s an academic and legal decision.”

http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2013/03/crossrail-plague-skeleton.html?cmpid=RSS|NSNS|2012-GLOBAL|online-news

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To live in any large city during the 19th century, at a time when the state provided little in the way of a safety net, was to witness poverty and want on a scale unimaginable in most Western countries today. In London, for example, the combination of low wages, appalling housing, a fast-rising population and miserable health care resulted in the sharp division of one city into two. An affluent minority of aristocrats and professionals lived comfortably in the good parts of town, cossetted by servants and conveyed about in carriages, while the great majority struggled desperately for existence in stinking slums where no gentleman or lady ever trod, and which most of the privileged had no idea even existed. It was a situation accurately and memorably skewered by Dickens, who in Oliver Twist introduced his horrified readers to Bill Sikes’s lair in the very real and noisome Jacob’s Island, and who has Mr. Podsnap, in Our Mutual Friend, insist: “I don’t want to know about it; I don’t choose to discuss it; I don’t admit it!”

Out of sight and all too often out of mind, the working people of the British capital nonetheless managed to conjure livings for themselves in extraordinary ways. Our guide to the enduring oddity of many mid-Victorian occupations is Henry Mayhew, whose monumental four-volume study of London Labour and the London Poor remains one of the classics of working-class history. Mayhew–whom we last met a year ago, describing the lives of London peddlers of this period–was a pioneering journalist-cum-sociologist who interviewed representatives of hundreds of eye-openingly odd trades, jotting down every detail of their lives in their own words to compile a vivid, panoramic overview of everyday life in the mid-Victorian city.

Among Mayhew’s more memorable meetings were encounters with the “bone grubber,” the “Hindoo tract seller,” an eight-year-old girl watercress-seller and the “pure finder,” whose surprisingly sought-after job was picking up dog mess and selling it to tanners, who then used it to cure leather. None of his subjects, though, aroused more fascination–or greater disgust–among his readers than the men who made it their living by forcing entry into London’s sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above: bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.

Mayhew called them “sewer hunters” or “toshers,” and the latter term has come to define the breed, though it actually had a rather wider application in Victorian times–the toshers sometimes worked the shoreline of the Thames rather than the sewers, and also waited at rubbish dumps when the contents of damaged houses were being burned and then sifted through the ashes for any items of value. They were mostly celebrated, nonetheless, for the living that the sewers gave them, which was enough to support a tribe of around 200 men–each of them known only by his nickname: Lanky Bill, Long Tom, One-eyed George, Short-armed Jack. The toshers earned a decent living; according to Mayhew’s informants, an average of six shillings a day–an amount equivalent to about $50 today. It was sufficient to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class–and, as the astonished writer noted, “at this rate, the property recovered from the sewers of London would have amounted to no less than £20,000 [today $3.3 million] per annum.”

The toshers’ work was dangerous, however, and–after 1840, when it was made illegal to enter the sewer network without express permission, and a £5 reward was offered to anyone who informed on them–it was also secretive, done mostly at night by lantern light. “They won’t let us in to work the shores,” one sewer-hunter complained, “as there’s a little danger. They fears as how we’ll get suffocated, but they don’t care if we get starved!”

Quite how the members of the profession kept their work a secret is something of a puzzle, for Mayhew makes it clear that their dress was highly distinctive. “These toshers,” he wrote,

“may be seen, especially on the Surrey side of the Thames, habited in long greasy velveteen coats, furnished with pockets of vast capacity, and their nether limbs encased in dirty canvas trousers, and any old slops of shoes… [They] provide themselves, in addition, with a canvas apron, which they tie round them, and a dark lantern similar to a policeman’s; this they strap before them on the right breast, in such a manner that on removing the shade, the bull’s eye throws the light straight forward when they are in an erect position… but when they stoop, it throws the light directly under them so that they can distinctly see any object at their feet. They carry a bag on their back, and in their left hand a pole about seven or eight feet long, one one end of which there is a large iron hoe.”

This hoe was the vital tool of the sewer hunters’ trade. On the river, it sometimes saved their lives, for “should they, as often happens, even to the most experienced, sink in some quagmire, they immediately throw out the long pole armed with the hoe, and with it seizing hold of any object within reach, are thereby enabled to draw themselves out.” In the sewers, the hoe was invaluable for digging into the accumulated muck in search of the buried scraps that could be cleaned and sold.

Knowing where to find the most valuable pieces of detritus was vital, and most toshers worked in gangs of three or four, led by a veteran who was frequently somewhere between 60 and 80 years old. These men knew the secret locations of the cracks that lay submerged beneath the surface of the sewer-waters, and it was there that cash frequently lodged. “Sometimes,” Mayhew wrote, “they dive their arm down to the elbow in the mud and filth and bring up shillings, sixpences, half-crowns, and occasionally half-sovereigns and sovereigns. They always find these the coins standing edge uppermost between the bricks in the bottom, where the mortar has been worn away.”

Life beneath London’s streets might have been surprisingly lucrative for the experienced sewer-hunter, but the city authorities had a point: It was also tough, and survival required detailed knowledge of its many hazards. There were, for example, sluices that were raised at low tide, releasing a tidal wave of effluent-filled water into the lower sewers, enough to drown or dash to pieces the unwary. Conversely, toshers who wandered too far into the endless maze of passages risked being trapped by a rising tide, which poured in through outlets along the shoreline and filled the main sewers to the roof twice daily.

Yet the work was not was unhealthy, or so the sewer-hunters themselves believed. The men that Mayhew met were strong, robust and even florid in complexion, often surprisingly long-lived–thanks, perhaps, to immune systems that grew used to working flat out–and adamantly convinced that the stench that they encountered in the tunnels “contributes in a variety of ways to their general health.” They were more likely, the writer thought, to catch some disease in the slums they lived in, the largest and most overcrowded of which was off Rosemary Lane, on the poorer south side of the river.

“Access is gained to this court through a dark narrow entrance, scarcely wider than a doorway, running beneath the first floor of one of the houses in the adjoining street. The court itself is about 50 yards long, and not more than three yards wide, surrounded by lofty wooden houses, with jutting abutments in many upper storeys that almost exclude the light, and give them the appearance of being about to tumble down upon the heads of the intruder. The court is densely inhabited…. My informant, when the noise had ceased, explained the matter as follows: “You see, sir, there’s more than thirty houses in this here court, and there’s no less than eight rooms in every house; now there’s nine or ten people in some of the rooms, I knows, but just say four in every room and calculate what that there comes to.” I did, and found it, to my surprise, to be 960. “Well,” continued my informant, chuckling and rubbing his hands in evident delight at the result, “you may as well just tack a couple of hundred on to the tail o’ them for makeweight, as we’re not werry pertikler about a hundred or two one way or the other in these here places.”

No trace has yet been found of the sewer-hunters prior to Mayhew’s encounter with them, but there is no reason to suppose that the profession was not an ancient one. London had possessed a sewage system since Roman times, and some chaotic medieval construction work was regulated by Henry VIII’s Bill of Sewers, issued in 1531. The Bill established eight different groups of commissioners and charged them with keeping the tunnels in their district in good repair, though since each remained responsible for only one part of the city, the arrangement guaranteed that the proliferating sewer network would be built to no uniform standard and recorded on no single map.

Thus it was never possible to state with any certainty exactly how extensive the labrynth under London was. Contemporary estimates ran as high as 13,000 miles; most of these tunnels, of course, were far too small for the toshers to entert, but there were at least 360 major sewers, bricked in the 17th century. Mayhew noted that these tunnels averaged a height of 3 feet 9 inches, and since 540 miles of the network was formally surveyed in the 1870s it does not seem too much to suggest that perhaps a thousand miles of tunnel was actually navigable to a determined man. The network was certainly sufficient to ensure that hundreds of miles of uncharted tunnel remained unknown to even the most experienced among the toshers.

It is hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that legends proliferated among the men who made a living in the tunnels. Mayhew recorded one of the most remarkable bits of folklore common among the toshers: that a “race of wild hogs” inhabited the sewers under Hampstead, in the far north of the city. This story­–a precursor of the tales of “alligators in the sewers” heard in New York a century later–suggested that a pregnant sow by some accident got down the sewer through an opening, and, wandering away from the spot, littered and reared her offspring in the drain; feeding on the offal and garbage washed into it continually. Here, it is alleged, the breed multiplied exceedingly, and have become almost as ferocious as they are numerous.

Thankfully, the same legend explained, the black swine that proliferated under Hampstead were incapable of traversing the tunnels to emerge by the Thames; the construction of the sewer network obliged them to cross Fleet Ditch–a bricked-over river–“and as it is the obstinate nature of a pig to swim against the stream, the wild hogs of the sewers invariably work their way back to their original quarters, and are thus never to be seen.”

A second myth, far more eagerly believed, told of the existence (Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood record) “of a mysterious, luck-bringing Queen Rat”:

This was a supernatural creature whose true appearance was that of a rat; she would follow the toshers about, invisibly, as they worked, and when she saw one that she fancied she would turn into a sexy-looking woman and accost him. If he gave her a night to remember, she would give him luck in his work; he would be sure to find plenty of money and valuables. He would not necessarily guess who she was, for though the Queen Rat did have certain peculiarities in her human form (her eyes reflected light like an animal’s, and she had claws on her toes), he probably would not notice them while making love in some dark corner. But if he did suspect, and talked about her, his luck would change at once; he might well drown, or meet with some horrible accident.

One such tradition was handed down in the family of a tosher named Jerry Sweetly, who died in 1890, and finally published more than a century later. According to this family legend, Sweetly had encountered the Queen Rat in a pub. They drank until midnight, went to a dance, “and then the girl led him to a rag warehouse to make love.” Bitten deeply on the neck (the Queen Rat often did this to her lovers, marking them so no other rat would harm them), Sweetly lashed out, causing the girl to vanish and reappear as a gigantic rat up in the rafters. From this vantage point, she told the boy: “You’ll get your luck, tosher, but you haven’t done paying me for it yet!”

Offending the Queen Rat had serious consequences for Sweetly, the same tradition ran. His first wife died in childbirth, his second on the river, crushed between a barge and the wharf. But, as promised by legend, the tosher’s children were all lucky, and once in every generation in the Sweetly family a female child was born with mismatched eyes–one blue, the other grey, the color of the river.

Queen Rats and mythical sewer-pigs were not the only dangers confronting the toshers, of course. Many of the tunnels they worked in were crumbling and dilapidated–“the bricks of the Mayfair sewer,” Peter Ackroyd says, “were said to be as rotten as gingerbread; you could have scooped them out with a spoon”–and they sometimes collapsed, entombing the unwary sewer hunters who disturbed them. Pockets of suffocating and explosive gases such as “sulphurated hydrogen” were also common, and no tosher could avoid frequent contact with all manner of human waste. The endlessly inquisitive Mayhew recorded that the “deposit” found in the sewers

“has been found to comprise all the ingredients from the gas works, and several chemical and mineral manufactories; dead dogs, cats, kittens, and rats; offal from the slaughter houses, sometimes even including the entrails of the animals; street pavement dirt of every variety; vegetable refuse, stable-dung; the refuse of pig-styes; night-soil; ashes; rotten mortar and rubbish of different kinds.”

That the sewers of mid-19th-century London were foul is beyond question; it was widely agreed, Michelle Allen says, that the tunnels were “volcanoes of filth; gorged veins of putridity; ready to explode at any moment in a whirlwind of foul gas, and poison all those whom they failed to smother.” Yet this, the toshers themselves insisted, did not mean that working conditions under London were entirely intolerable. The sewers, in fact, had worked fairly efficiently for many years–not least because, until 1815, they were required to do little more than carry off the rains that fell in the streets. Before that date, the city’s latrines discharged into cesspits, not the sewer network, and even when the laws were changed, it took some years for the excrement to build up.

By the late 1840s, though, London’s sewers were deteriorating sharply, and the Thames itself, which received their untreated discharges, was effectively dead. By then it was the dumping-ground for 150 million tons of waste each year, and in hot weather the stench became intolerable; the city owes its present sewage network to the “Great Stink of London,” the infamous product of a lengthy summer spell of hot, still weather in 1858 that produced a miasma so oppressive that Parliament had to be evacuated. The need for a solution became so obvious that the engineer Joseph Bazalgette–soon to be Sir Joseph, a grateful nation’s thanks for his ingenious solution to the problem–was employed to modernize the sewers. Bazalgette’s idea was to build a whole new system of super-sewers that ran along the edge of the river, intercepted the existing network before it could discharge its contents, and carried them out past the eastern edge of the city to be processed in new treatment plants.

Even after the tunnels deteriorated and they became increasingly dangerous, though, what a tosher feared more than anything else was not death by suffocation or explosion, but attacks by rats. The bite of a sewer rat was a serious business, as another of Mayhew’s informants, Jack Black–the “Rat and Mole Destroyer to Her Majesty”–explained.”When the bite is a bad one,” Black said, “it festers and forms a hard core in the ulcer, which throbs very much indeed. This core is as big as a boiled fish’s eye, and as hard as stone. I generally cuts the bite out clean with a lancet and squeezes…. I’ve been bitten nearly everywhere, even where I can’t name to you, sir.”

There were many stories, Henry Mayhew concluded, of toshers’ encounters with such rats, and of them “slaying thousands… in their struggle for life,” but most ended badly. Unless he was in company, so that the rats dared not attack, the sewer-hunter was doomed. He would fight on, using his hoe, “till at last the swarms of the savage things overpowered him.” Then he would go down fighting, his body torn to pieces and the tattered remains submerged in untreated sewage, until, a few days later, it became just another example of the detritus of the tunnels, drifting toward the Thames and its inevitable discovery by another gang of toshers–who would find the remains of their late colleague “picked to the very bones.”

Read more: http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/history/2012/06/quite-likely-the-worst-job-ever/#ixzz2JgTnkQ9U
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101212-whale

Cops swooped on the Nightjar bar in Hoxton, East London, where barmen were  serving the Moby Dick drink.

It contained Laphroaig whisky, Drambuie, ale, bitters and a “whale skin  infusion”.

The raid last week comes amid a Europe-wide ban on whale meat and products,  except under strict restrictions in Greenland and Denmark.

The Metropolitan Police were tipped-off in October that the bar was serving  whale skin illegally. The Met’s Wildlife Crime Unit and a UK Border Force  officer raided the premises on December 3.

A police spokesman said: “One item from the premises was seized. This has  been  sent for analysis.”

No arrests have been made at the Nightjar, which describes itself on its  website as “a hidden slice of old-school glamour”. Its drinks range from £9  to £17 a glass.

Bar bosses said it had been unaware the drink contained an illegal ingredient  until the raid and has removed the drink from sale.

Nightjar director Edmund Weil said: “We did have a drink on this year’s menu  which included a small amount of scotch whisky infused with a single 2 x 5cm  strip of dried whale skin.

“The strip was purchased in a shop by an employee while on a trip to Japan in  autumn 2011.

“Until the police visit, neither ourselves nor our employees were aware of  the  legislation under which the bottle was seized.

“In hindsight we realise that regardless of the legal framework around such  products, it was an error of judgement on our part to include this on our  menu, and we would like to offer our apologies to anyone who may have been  offended by it.

“We have removed the drink entirely from our menu, which will be reprinted  before Monday to reflect this.”

Native Greenlanders who use whales as subsistence food are the only Europeans  allowed to kill or to eat them in strictly limited amounts.

Read more: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4689220/Bar-raided-for-whale-meat-cocktail.html#ixzz2EhWDnief