Book Review

An Underground Guide To Sewers by Stephen Halliday

great book on the history of subterranean poo tubes

I had some good news today, which prompted a short bit of looking at old posts on TriumphoftheNow.com and I encountered this piece.

It is, like, relentlessly hopeful.

It’s from about 14 months ago, and though I think of this blog (and my life) as relentlessly depressive, actually there WAS a period where that wasn’t the case.

Even within that hope and optimism and that sense of joy in life, though, there’s the prediction/expectation that, at a later date, I will slip once more into depression. I was, alas, right, because that is what has happened.

I’m doing my best to combat it, but now – on a day where I’ve received some good news – I really feel the weight of that illness: I’m not excited by the good news, the good news barely registers, and registers only as a potential good thing that might become nothing or, at worst, become a bad thing; it won’t though, I don’t imagine: it’s a good thing that will become a good thing and there will be other good things, too; but even when there are good things I feel nothing, nothing, nothing good. It’s exhausting, as too is all the appointments the fucking Canadian doctors demand I go to. Yes, I would like to die and, no, it isn’t because I hate my life and thus I’m not going to kill myself, but that first statement outweighs the other two with them and so I have to check in relentlessly relentlessly relentlessly and if I can’t lie to them and tell them i don’t weep whenever i’m undistracted then it just seeks to remind me oh yeah the way i feel is bad and the way i feel is not normal and the way in which i live – dissociating from myself basically 24/7 – is unhealthy and not-

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I love to read. I love to be deep in a book.

I read to escape, but I read to experience.

I read to remember and I read to forget and I read to recognise myself in others and I read to experience what is distant from myself.

I read poetry and essay and novel and short story and (not for ages, actually, should do it again soon!) comic book and I laugh and I cry and I learn and I read some more.

Books are an expression of something, always.

No book exists by accident; no books (yet, that I know of) are created by computer [that don’t explicitly make clear that fact].

Books represent time and effort, though varying amounts of both.

If there were to be a book, though, that would algorithmically appeal to Scott Manley Hadley (i.e. me), then it would basically be An Underground Guide to Sewers, if there was the addition of at least one tear-jerking digression about its writer, Stephen Halliday’s, personal life.

So, yes, this isn’t a perfect non-fiction book for me, but I think it is probably a perfect non-fiction book for anyone lacking my achingly millennial-hipster literary tastes who’s as interested in civil engineering, urban development, utilities and – of course – poo as I am. Which is a lot; I like reading about all of those things.

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An Underground Guide to Sewers is a beautiful book, physically. It’s published by The MIT Press and it’s a hefty tome, printed on thick paper with photographs and illustrations and maps and diagrams [and text] filling every page. There are the designs for sewers from the beginning of the industrial revolution, there are photographs of the archeological remains of ancient (like properly ancient) sewers, as well as the mega-sewers and massive treatment plants that exist in the present day.

It’s an entire history of sewers.

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It won’t shock most of you to know, but since the first evolution of homo sapiens, we have shat: even the beautiful ones.

Our need to poo and wee didn’t bother us so much when we were hunter-gatherer types, wandering from place to place and moving on through the wilderness, and when we first began settling into farms and then villages, as long as everyone remembered to use a specific place designated for the purpose (downstream of wherever we got our drinking water from), then things would usually hold OK, barring the regular, inevitable, outbreaks of disease that come from poor hygiene. Once we started getting together into proper towns, though, that was where things got sticky.

With casual expertise, Halliday walks us through the shit-filled ditches in the middle of roads, through to the first covered sewers and the domestic plumbing that would feed into them; through the development in the ancient world of proper sewers that actually worked, through to the sacking of Rome and the descent of Western Europe back to a less urban society, which it remained even as towns grew into cities.

Then, all of a sudden, it was too much.

The nineteenth century saw mass urbanisation and a fundamental shift in expectations of human existence. Then cholera and then many other diseases swept the global, industrialised, world on the regular, and though scientists had suggested the causes might be microbes, the vast majority of the global populace believed disease was spread solely by “bad air”. So, the first massive sewers built in London and Paris were not to help protect us from the diseases in the shit itself, but from the diseases in the smell. Whatever they did, though, worked.

The rest of the book is about refining the processes and the changing needs of the sewer-using population as well as new challenges, like fatbergs and increased flushing of non-organic matter.

At many points when reading this, in the right-leaning era of [“]Late[“] Capitalism in which we live, I found myself thinking about the impossibility of these projects being begun by governments now.

Yes, sewer systems are maintained, but the start-up costs would be fucking huge, and new state projects – especially those featuring new, unproven technology that can’t be proved to work without being constructed and tested en masse – are treated with suspicion and disapproval. Obviously, society would not have got to the place it is at without effective sanitation in major cities, but if cities continue to increase their populations without also increasing their sewer capacity, then we will be – quite literally – in the shit.

A great read. I now know how septic tanks work, I now know why Paris is so full of wide boulevards (to stop effective barricade-construction and ease the marching of troops from stations to protestors) and I now know what effort was made in the industrial revolution to truly change the world.

The changes Halliday writes about here are so much more fundamental than the “digital revolution” we talk about now: almost doubling the average age is a bigger deal than being able to waste all that extra time writing crap like this for an audience of barely more than two.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the anti-vaxxers – their foolishness a societal ill that spread via internet – will kill us all. Maybe the sewers will overflow. Maybe we’ll all get cholera and maybe, soon, we’ll all be dead.

Nice.

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