The Lockdown Diaries 4: Breathe In, Breathe Out


1. The Joy Of Illness

I’m wary about the oversharing. To my mind Vivienne Haig-Wood could have just listened to her husband’s poems and gone to bed with a hot water bottle. To lower the paywall of the conscious mind and admit something serious to a fellow being is to impose upon them, however slightly. If I discuss a personal issue it needs must elicit a response, usually in the form of commiseration, and it upsets others. This is what documentarian Adam Curtis called ‘Oh Dearism’ – the only possible response to bad news one cannot do anything about. Job’s comforters have been banished to Sheol and replaced by hand-wringing Oh Dearists. That’s the trouble with being rendered powerless.

As Curtis pointed out in his documentary ‘Hypernormalisation’ (iPlayer) our only job now is to shop and preen on social media. We were behaving exactly as instructed when along came the pandemic. Illness is a disrupter. We started breaking patterns by reaching out to others and creating new plans from scratch. Look out, we could even become real influencers instead of social ones.

2. Keep It Clean

Virginia Woolf, the heron of Bloomsbury, thought that it is ‘strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to tooth-ache. She had a point. Illness has changed our future, but even though we see the evidence before us, will we take notice?

London’s air quality figures have massively improved; hundreds of lives are being saved. This has been a shavasana, the only yogic position everyone likes, a lacuna, a breath in and a breath out. The reduction of diesel is clearing rivers, cleaning streets, restoring trees, bringing back an ecosystem. What’s the betting everyone with a diesel truck will be running it the second lockdown ends? Or can we learn to make essential trips only?

I had some meds delivered and the driver told me he had visited London, Manchester and London again in a day, that trucks were delivering single boxes containing an eyebrow pencil or a plastic tube of glitter. Will we rethink this or will advertising agencies start shoving rubbish at us again? For clues we could look at one ad exec interviewed in the Times last week who wondered; ‘Is it too soon to start making pandemic jokes in our ads?’. In the latest issue of ‘Monocle’, the magazine touts ‘hot new luxury brands’, also including an article on business dinosaurs without any sense of irony.

3. The London Nobody Remembers

A London research question. Why are there a few weirdly random market stalls tucked beneath the Bridge at Charing Cross Station, just before the footbridges? Google couldn’t help so I did an Arthur Bryant and searched through old books.

I stumbled across an answer quite by accident. Until 1669, Hungerford House stood on that spot and allowed a market on its grounds. That’s why the bridges is called Hungerford Bridge, and a few stalls still have rights to pitch there. So many of London’s secrets lies in the crevices and corners of the past.

30 comments on “The Lockdown Diaries 4: Breathe In, Breathe Out”

  1. I take your point, but ‘…hundreds of lives are being saved’ is a bit of a perhaps maybe. For sure, there are presently over 6,000 additional deaths per week in London.

  2. …sorry, should have been 6,000 up to this week, not per week. It’s not quite that bad!

  3. admin says:

    According to yesterday’s data there was a drop of 1,700 diagnoses of pollution-related lung diseases, but of course some people may be frightened of going into hospitals.

  4. Indeed Chris, the number of people visiting hospitals seems to have reduced dramatically. When I went for my appointment on Tuesday morning, the patient car park, where there’s usually queuing to enter, was largely unoccupied. Inside the building, there was no waiting for the receptionist; we even had a pleasant chat. After that, I was the only person in the waiting room.

  5. Jan says:

    I know where you mean a fruit and veg stall used to rock up there regularly it was a big stall and v cheap 4 the centre of town with a a couple of tourist tat stalls nearby. Some enterprising soul used to flog umbrellas and waterproof ponchos to the unprepared for our weather travellers. Big flower stall also.

    Does the Watergate in Embankment gardens not tie into Hungerford House? I am not 100% but think it might. I got very very keen on researching that whole area for a time it’s ever so interesting. (Bet you’re already regretting opening this particular trap door.)

    In fact there’s an old map I have got a copy of somewhere and I bet it’s on line also you know from around the 14-15C onwards when the Thames was choc a block with watercabby men- before they took to infesting the roads instead. -Well these guys were massively territorial apparently and used to stick very much to their beats. There was a Hungerford Market scabby Xing the Thames posting being between York building Stairs and then a bigger chunk of a gap to the West where the Scotland Yard Stairs were situated. Odd that Scotland Yard was in fact the Scots embassy early on. (Mind you in certain departments it still was well into the 1990s. I kid you not)

    Yes all those roads between the Strand and the River round that way on are interesting.

    For instance Carting Lane where that sewer gas lamp still remains. I always thought would have been more fitting to drop the “C” and replace it with an “F” really – seemed more appropriate. Then there was that green telephone box near that funny little square building close to the Savoy just tucked away. Connection with Duchy of Lancaster which is a bit of a thing with regards to the Savoy. In fact at one point starting in the l8 Victorian era there were two little Dragon statues just around there near that square building. Painted things if I remember correctly and they were removed maybe just prior to WW2. Perhaps being part of the great railing appropriation.

    Well they ended up being displayed near or maybe on the gates of some BT research place up near Stevenage goodness knows how I found that out. It’s all written down somewhere. This is like an illness isn’t it? Accruing useless knowledge about places you don’t frequent any longer.

    Hope everything’s good Jan x

  6. Brooke says:

    I was just about to ask source of 6k but checked FT data map. I agree with Peter T.- the currently mortality rate is 124% above average. Moreover, not sure how we can conclude lives are being saved because diagnostic levels declined–let’s look at other indicators, e.g. incidence of pediatric o. visits/hospitalization for asthma. And sine Covid affects respiratory system, especially those already compromised, less polluted air may have come too late for some among the 6k.

    How are you, Peter?

  7. Peter Dixon says:

    ‘Oh Dearism’; In ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ I always enjoyed Windsor Davies’ reply to an ineffectual excuse from one of the gunners ‘Oh dear, how sad, never mind!’ Thus quashing any attempt at further explanation.

  8. Brooke, thank you for asking. I think that I’m very well, apart from a few chronic, but not life threatening, conditions that refuse to go away.

    Given that the air is less polluted (that is concentrations of some pollutants have fallen in London), we really need to know precisely why so that we can take sensible actions for a long-term improvement (though we should keep in mind that city air quality has been improving significantly for the last decade). I fear that if local or national governments notice, it will serve as an excuse for tax raising measures and nothing more.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    The question being whether we are talking about net gains or absolute (?) ones. There certainly aren’t any net gains but there are certainly (I’m sure, despite having no actual data) some people alive who wouldn’t have been had there been no pandemic.As someone with lungs subject to pneumonia (the pneumonia shot doesn’t protect against covid 19) I appreciate any reduction in airborne stuff.
    On a different note, have we given up differentiating between “fewer” and “less” when talking amounts? I’m hearing people talking about “less” when the material referred to could be counted, usually people as in “less students”. Funnily enough no one says “fewer rain”. Every day in every way I am becoming further and further separated from modern English. I still say “wove” and “woven” for the past of weave and that is something else.

  10. JanW says:

    Charing Cross Station is on the site of Hungerford Market as on Roque’s 1745 map, and probabaly earlier too, between Villiers Street and Craven Street. The lane known as Brewery Lane on the Craven Street side on Roque’s map is now Hun gerford Lane. As well as the stalls under the arches and outside Embankment station many small stalls traded in the walkway linking Charing Cross station and Hungerford Bridge above Villier’s St, really part of the bridge I suppose. They must have been the licenced remnants of the market but generally just sold tourist tat, or am I being harsh?

    I used in work in Craven Street and was fascinated by the side of the station, it had architecturally disparate bits – like a clapboard shed sticking out halfway up the building. As soon I escape from lockdown I am going back to photograph it

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – I believe that Carting Lane, where the lights used to be fuelled by sewer gas, was known for time as ‘Farting’ Lane, before some Victorian ‘snowflake’ was disgusted by it. Sherbourne Street (or Lane, I can never remember which) was, I believe, once ‘Shittebowe’ Street. Neither, though, have the utter disregard for the easily offended, as the magnificent ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ name of ‘Gropecunt Lane’, a hang out of yer actual prostitutes. And not unique to London, apparently.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Had to check my diary, but the lane below St. Paul’s and along which is the Sun pub appears to be Carter’s Lane so Carting is somewhere else and I haven’t walked along it.

  13. Jan says:

    Ian No there’s Gropecunt Lanes/Alleys in Wells Somerset also in Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth. All subject to name change! One of the roads in East London within Whitechapel (still within a red light area) had a changed name but had been originally Gropecunt Lane. At least a travelling punter knew where to go if he was looking for business. People were seemingly a lot less squeamish in Medieval times.

    Funnily enough there was a road near Paddington between the A40 and the Harrow Road somewhere or other that had become so notoriously used for street prostitution during WW2 that it had one fairly innocuous name changed for another. It was just that well known Westminster felt that something needed to be done.

    Jan W yes I had completely forgotten the other stalls up on the walkway yes you are right. It was tourist tat for sure. What else do you call it? Travellers ephemera?! I used to know a bit more about Charing X station but it’s gradually all dissappearing into a fuzz. I will have a think on it but I reckon that bit you are referring to had something to do with a planned route that didn’t quite get constructed. The thing about the really oldest train stations being they have pretty much all got vestigial remnants of the early piecemeal private development days. Blackfriars and Fenchurch Street being perhaps the most interesting. Blackfriars was going to be some international travel hub at one point it’s sort flickered but never quite became what they wanted it to be. Interesting though I think all the international destinations are still displayed in there.

    All those roads S of the Strand are interesting the Savoy is really interesting. Yes it was Roques map I should have remembered that really!

    If you think about it just about everything that’s built is liable to create some sort of knock on consequence for what appears next. Charing Cross was the site of one of the splendid railway hotels which came and went got turned into BR office space but the extensive wine cellar of the hotel housed in the Adelphi arches – utilising the Charing X railway arches gets turned into a mega nightclub + becomes the first really large gay night club in London. Sort of took what had been a low numbers niche market discreetly serving its clientele and put it mainstream.
    Really odd how neighbourhoods and different sites evolve things get pushed forward or morph into something else….

  14. Jan says:

    Oh Ian there is still one really large lamp a sewer gas lamp left in (F)Carting Lane. Cos I am so addicted to London oddities I have pre digital photos of this thing and it’s really w-i-d-e there’s no way you could mistake it for any even normal Victorian gas lamp. It’s a cumbersome thing of beauty really, clunky but good.

    It’s on the E side of the street as it turns left up toward the Strand.. the big hotel being just to the left. Of course it’s no longer fuelled by fart power I think it might still be run off butane or similar – well it was about fifteen years back when I waddled around to see it.

    Not the only gas lamp left in central London there’s some up near Kings X well within Fowler territory. They are within a garden square. This is pretty sad I know this stuff. I appreciate that I am deep in the land of the numpty.

  15. Jan says:

    Oh Ian there is still one really large lamp a sewer gas lamp left in (F)Carting Lane. Cos I am so addicted to London oddities I have pre digital photos of this thing and it’s really w-i-d-e there’s no way you could mistake it for any even normal Victorian gas lamp. It’s a cumbersome thing of beauty really, clunky but good.

    It’s on the W side of the street as it turns left up toward the Strand.. the big hotel being just to the left. Of course it’s no longer fuelled by fart power I think it might still be run off butane or similar – well it was about fifteen years back when I waddled around to see it.

    Not the only gas lamp left in central London there’s some up near Kings X well within Fowler territory. They are within a garden square. This is pretty sad I know this stuff. I appreciate that I am deep in the land of the numpty.

  16. Jan says:

    I know the same comment has appeared X2 Chris it’s cos I remembered the sewer gas lamp is in fact on West side of the carriageway. When you think about it Bazalgettes work although rarely remembered and seen has had such a profound effect on London it’s incredible really. Only now suddenly you can see his mighty work because of all the building they r doing at the sites where the lost rivers of London, the submerged tributaries, reach their confluence points with the Thames. NOW suddenly his mighty work is obvious. In January 2019 and another few times last year I decided to photograph all these confluences which the ancients seemed to feel created sacred spots river confluences. Nowt to photograph – pontoons and scaffolding like everywhere from the Effra right along. That bloody annoying it was.

    Hope today gos well.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Jan – That lamp has a name – ‘Iron Lily’. It’s proper name is a ‘Sewer gas destructor’. But I prefer ‘Iron Lily’

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Just re-reading The Water Room and being reminded of all that mucking about with the rivers that happened over the years. Just thinking about all those tons of water rushing about under the floors is a little disturbing.

    I was actually out of our yard today because I don’t bank on line or have a banking card so I had to make an appointment to do some simple banking. We don’t need cash because everyone insists on credit cards (is this going to create the cashless society at last?) but there are other things. I was able to see the new corner building where our credit union is moving this summer. The development is called Kings Crossing and is at a major corner on Kingsway but bringing names this far seems a bit odd.

  19. JanW says:

    Chris’s blog(and books) and the interesting discussions always make want to explore more of London and really look at the details of places. Thanks Jan, I didn’t know about sewer gas lamps. I believe that there are still over a thousand gas street lamps, notably in Westminster, you can see the little gas mantles if you look closely. This is probably common knowledge to other more erudite readers but comparatively new to me.

  20. Brooke says:

    Mr. Fowler– are Twitter folks the only readers who get to vote on new book cover?

  21. Kim Froggatt says:

    Becoming real influencers again, reaching out, being kind and showing genuine gratitude. All of me hopes it will last beyond the disruption of the virus but a big part of me doubts it will once the imminent threat of indiscriminate death subsides. I wonder what it would take to make the change permanent?

  22. I’m not sure, but think that the sewer gas lamps are/were fuelled by mains gas. The sewer gas generally doesn’t have enough combustible content to maintain a flame by itself. As such, they’re effectively glorified stink pipes much like the ones in houses. They can still perform their function of relieving the accumulation of foul gas even when they are not used for illumination.

  23. Jan says:

    Peter I was told at one point that this lamp was converted to mains gas from being a sewer gas outlet. This was done pretty much for the reasons you outline i.e. That the lamp was unreliable because the sewerage gas supply was very variable.

    Apparently it could still on occasion be well whiffy.

    Ian yes “Iron Lily” is a smashing name I reckon.Like that.

    Jan W yes there’s a good few gas lamps still kicking about and a couple or three in the East end it’s the sewer gas lamp that I think is pretty well unique in London now.

    There’s still a good few stink pipes about not so much aligning with the Thames tributaries so much as with tributary streams feeding into the Lost rivers which is a bit of a thought in itself really.

    The most noticeable ones I ever came across were the ones close to the New River up in Islington (The New River supplying water for the City and inner London from out in Herts) There were more than I expected to see perhaps cos it’s such an old structure. In fact there’s a weird Sort of side channel to the New River still running above ground up in Tottenham. I could never figure it out at all this branch but just the other day read somewhere that this branch was probably there to supply some noble guys mansion.

    Sorry to have burbled on such a lot. Hope every one is doing ok. Including yourself and Peter Mr. F.

  24. snowy says:

    What you are discussing is Joseph Webb’s ‘Patent Sewer Gas Extractor and Destructor’. Joseph made quite a tidy sum from his patents, but his invention was a mixture of flim-flam, dubious scientific claims and nifty salesmanship.

    The oft’ repeated myth is that they were, streetlamps, powered by sewer gas, neither claim is true.

    They are disguised to look like streetlamps, [this disguise didn’t really work when they put them on the roof of the London Hospital*]. but the light they gave out was a unwanted by-product.

    They were always supplied with town gas to provide the flame.

    [Not very scientific explanation follows:

    The idea was by burning a flame at the top of a pipe driven into the sewer it would suck the gases out and burn off the explosive methane and destroy the smelly hydrogen sulphide.]

    They were quite popular for about 30 years, [esp. with Joe, who was taking royalties on each one], until people realised they were a very expensive solution to a simple problem. [Sheffield has the most left, but they sold worldwide.]

    [* They were put there to ventilate the smell of the mortuary.]

    [This is the edited version, the original was turning into a book!].

  25. snowy says:

    For those with an obsessive curiosity or who just like pictures, I have found a link:

  26. Jan says:

    Snows actually variations on the sewer gas lamp situated in or on roof space to neutralise mortuary odours appear in a good few mortuaries whether attached to hospitals or not.

    At one time of course people believed the odour itself could damage the living body.The other obvious answer being to bung the mortuary into the basement an idea still utilised in modern hospitals but invented for much older structures for e.g. The original Charing X hospital situated just N of the Strand..(Now in Hammersmith) Refrigeration later turning out to be the best option.

  27. Helen Martin says:

    Although basement location still a good idea as there is no other reason to go down there. I enjoyed the Webb Co. article and diagrams and found it amusing that the remaining records show all sorts of town purchases but Canada and India just appear that way. I’m guessing that the Canadian purchases would have been in the East since out here on the west coast we went to electric light as soon as possible, especially as Vancouver was covered by an electric streetcar system by 1892 and they installed street lighting on contract. (nice deal for them, but they “knew people”.)

  28. Wayne Mook says:

    Ian – There is a tickle cock bridge in Castleford, they did try to change the name but the locals complained so they put it back.


  29. Ian Luck says:

    It’s a similar thing to Twatt, in Orkney. A friend of ours worked near there, and was so amused by the sign, he thought that when he finished the job, the sign might accompany him home on a ‘long borrow’. For weeks he went past the sign, and his last day came – only for him to find that someone had already ‘borrowed’ it. The next time he went, he said that the sign was now unborrowably large.

  30. Helen Martin says:

    All these double entendre type names are only eyebrow raising if you know the “offensive” meaning. There is a place in Newfoundland called Dildo and for years I couldn’t get what the joke was. I think they may have changed the name now.

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