Watch out the heatwave is coming

c372c02016ae19623971de21a3e1203e Image via tumblr.

In preparation for this summer’s great heatwave I’ve been reading about the the great stink, which occurred during two hot summer months in 1858. The stink happened because untreated human excrement and industrial waste was dumped into the Thames and then it just sat there. The stink was so bad parliament had to be evacuated and then, finally, it was decided that something had to be done about the sewers in the city.

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London was a very different city back then. Here is one description:

In the century preceding 1856, over a hundred sewers were constructed in London, and at that date the city had around 200,000 cesspits and 360 sewers. Some cesspits leaked methane and other gases, which often caught fire and exploded, leading to loss of life, while many of the sewers were in a poor state of repair.

And here is another one:

Near the bridges the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface, even in water of this kind. … The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water; it was the same as that which now comes up from the gully-holes in the streets; the whole river was for the time a real sewer.

Eventually some genuinely lovely-looking sewage processing plants were built and the city was saved.

68e037baafed4c6be6f3cd603263c6b6 Image via That kind of woman.

I’m using the great stink as a coping strategy. Tomorrow it’s going to be thirty degrees, the day after will be even hotter. But at least that won’t happen again. I’m Nordic, my body hasn’t been conditioned to cope with anything hotter than 25 degrees. During scorching summer days I feel a strong urge to shut myself in a damp and cold earth cellar and wait for rain. But sometimes the heat is worth it for the thunderstorms that follow. I’ll be waiting for the day lightning flashes across the sky, the gutter outside our house floods and I can breathe again, thanks to those clever people who built the city sewers.

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The place where I belong

summerhouse

Back from the summer house where the sun doesn’t set at midsummer. Where the mosquitoes are almost as big as butterflies. Where there is a drawer full of photographs and postcards from Liverpool and New York and California. Hundreds of frozen faces, the relatives and friends of relatives who emigrated two generations ago.

When my grandmother was young they used to pack down their whole house in the spring and move out to the summerhouse. I think they even moved the piano, but I might have made that up. When my dad was young my grandparents crammed their children, cats and dog into a small car in June and drove for three hours to get to there, stopping occasionally to allow the children to vomit from car sickness. They stayed at the summerhouse until autumn came and it was time to go back to work and school. During one of these summers they picked up a tame crow. Another summer my grandmother adopted two aggressive turkeys that nipped at the feet of those who went out for a nightly pee.

The place is heavy with memories and stories. Every summer the house calls us back and we retell some and add some more.

There is a rowan tree by the shore. An ant hill next to the car park and another one near the wood shed. There is a big pine against which my brother and I practiced throwing knives one summer when we couldn’t come up with anything else to do. If I close my eyes I can see the path running from the house to the shore, the one going behind the small red hut which is rotting away and needs a new roof. I can see the rose bushes, the blueberries, the trees and the paper mill on the other side of the bay. I know the place and it knows me. There are roots from the soles of my feet that go deep into the ground. At the summerhouse I’m part of something bigger. I’m part of a past and a story.

We went to the summerhouse for a week and now we’re back. I’m raging against London sounds and pollution. But I’m here, back home. Missing home.

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Staying on a narrowboat in Bristol

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Last week Gerry and I packed our small car full of art and drove to Bristol. He was exhibiting at The Other Art Fair. I tagged along, excited because art fairs can be a lot of fun and because we were going to stay on a narrowboat.

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It’s always been a dream of mine to live on a narrowboat. It’s one of those impossible, impractical dreams. In my mind it would mean a bohemian and free sort of life. Camp fires, black cats and people playing the guitar. Never settling, going from one canal to the next, surviving alongside nature, making my own soap and foraging for nettles and blackberries. I think about the freedom of off-the-grid life and the money that could be saved. You can buy a narrowboat for around £40,000 and then you have a home. There are mooring fees, but there would be no big mortgage and no rent.

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I’ve done my research. Real life living on a narrowboat also means cold winter nights. Pumping out the toilet. Making sure you never run out of water and electricity. Struggling to get an address. Paying expensive mooring fees. And then there is the fear, but more about that later.

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Our little narrowboat in Bristol was lovely. It ticked all those bohemian boxes. A guitar on the wall, books crammed into every nook and cranny, a half empty bottle of rum on top of the fridge. A gentle rocking made it easy to fall asleep. I felt cradled by the water. I didn’t mind the occasional smelly waft from the composting toilet. I have after all spent many holidays at my family’s rural summerhouse in Finland where, for a long time, the only loo was a composting toilet in the garden.

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The second night on the boat was different. At around four in the morning I woke up and realised someone was walking on top of the boat. Heavy, slow and deliberate footsteps. Not jumping, drunken footsteps, no cheering and laughing from mates on the shore. I was wide awake and nervy. I have watched too many scary movies in my youth. I can be quite neurotic at the best of times. The only thing I could think of was the thin glass door with its flimsy lock. The fact that there were only a few boats around ours and not many other people nearby. What if a serial killer/a robber/a mad person broke into the boat? What would I do?

I spent the rest of the night trying to figure out the best way to fight off an intruder. In the end I decided that screaming really loudly and setting off the incredibly noisy gas alarm might do the trick. I also decided that if I owned a narrowboat I would buy one of those realistic plastic guns that shoot small plastic bullets. Boatlife seems a lot less romantic now.

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Ghosts and gangsters: A couple of notorious London pubs

London has a colourful past. It’s a city jam-packed with quirky stories and odd folktales. These streets have seen a lot, from mad Victorian killers to brawling gangsters to bombs falling from the sky. All those stories and memories are still here. You can still visit the pub where Jack the Ripper’s victims drank and have a pint in the place where the infamous Kray twins killed a man. Here are some of the city’s most notorious pubs.

The Ten Bells

the ten bells spitalfields Image via pinterest.

The Ten Bells is a popular pub next to Spitalfields Market. It used to be a bit scruffy, with toilets full of scribbles and graffiti. Now it’s a popular hangout for bankers and people from Essex, just like most of the pubs in the area. I’ve only been there once since it was redecorated a couple of years ago and the only thing I can remember about that evening is chatting about increasingly girly stuff over several pints of ale. But that’s perhaps not such unusual way to spend time in the Ten Bells. The pub is famous for having been a favourite of two of Jack the Ripper’s victims, Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly.

Back then Spitalfields was a very different place, the worst slum in London, with over-crowded housing, desperate poverty and landlords charging a nightly rent for flea infested beds in a drafty rooms. Many women in the area ended up working as prostitutes. Some of them walked the streets, others picked up customers in the pubs. The Ten Bells was one of their haunts.

The pub was opened in 1851 and according to Wikipedia Jamie Oliver’s great great grandfather was the landlord in the 1880s, around the time when Jack the Ripper was stalking the streets of Spitalfields.

84 Commercial Street, London E1 6QG

The Blind Beggar

the blind beggar Image via Spitalfields life.

On Whitechapel High Street sits The Blind Beggar. It’s quite an unassuming pub, and by that I mean that it looks like any other slightly downtrodden boozer where men huddle together to drink lager and watch sports. Unless you know the history of the place it’s difficult to imagine that it was there the infamous Kray twins shot gang rival George Cornell in front of a bunch of witnesses.

The murder took place on the 9th of March 1966 and was the beginning of the end for the brothers’ reign as kingpins in the East End underworld. A couple of months earlier Cornell had called Ronnie Kray, who was bisexual, a “fat poof”. Kray bore a grudge and when he saw Cornell at the Blind Beggar that day in March he pulled out a 9mm luger and shot him once in the forehead. Even though Kray was identified by several witnesses they all refused to testify against him and he was not arrested until two years after the killing.

The Kray twins ruled London’s underworld in the 60s. They ran “The Firm” and were involved in robberies, arson and protection rackets. Before their downfall the twins even ended up becoming semi-celebrities, mixing with famous musicians and politicians and appearing on television.

The Blind Beggar was built in 1894 on the site where an old inn had stood since the 1600s. The pub is also famous for being the location for William Booth’s first sermon, which led to the creation of the Salvation Army.

337 Whitechapel Rd, London E1 1BU

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

ye olde cheshire cheese Image by Bobo.

This isn’t exactly a notorious pub, but it’s a famous one, one of the most famous in London according to some. Its vaulted cellars are thought to be part of a 13th century monastery. The site was home to an inn which burnt down in the great fire of 1666. Most of the pub was rebuilt the next year, making it one of the oldest in the city. Fifteen monarchs have reigned whilst people have been enjoying pints under its roof.

Since Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese can be found on Fleet Street, where most of the national papers had their headquartes back in the day, it’s also been a favourite haunt for journalists and writers. Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and Voltaire are all said to have drunk there.

The pub also had its own parrot, Polly, who is now stuffed and can be found in the ground floor bar. Polly was known for mimicking customers and her death in 1926 was announced in newspapers around the world.

145 Fleet Street, London EC4A 2BU

The Prospect of Whitby

the prospect of whitby Image via pinterest.

This pub was originally known as “The Devil’s Tavern”. And if you weren’t a smuggler or a pirate it wasn’t the place for you. The Prospect of Whitby was first built in 1543, making it the oldest pub on the banks of the River Thames. It became known as a smugglers’ den in the 17th century. After a fire destroyed the original pub in the 18th century the new building was renamed after a ship that used to anchor nearby. The pub has come a long way since then. When a luxury restaurant was opened on the pub’s first floor in the 1950s it became a popular spot for European royalty.

57 Wapping Wall, Wapping, London E1W 3SH

The Morpeth Arms

This pub used to host 19th century prisoners on their way to the colonies. These men and women could be held in solitary confinement for six months. Outbreaks of cholera were common and many got scurvy before they had even set foot on a ship. Some of didn’t make it further than to these cells and their restless spirits are still said to haunt the pub basement. In the main bar customers have been known to complain that their drinks have been knocked out of their hands by an unseen force (sounds like a good excuse to get a fresh pint).

58 Millbank, SW1P

The Grenadier

the grenadier pub Image by George Redgrave.

The Grenadier is one of the most famous haunted pubs in London. In the early 1700s it was a popular gambling den for soliders. Around that time an officer was caught cheating at cards. He was flogged to death for his crimes. According to the pub’s owners his spirit never left.

It’s believed the solider died in September, which is when the paranormal activity picks up. Customers have reported a shadowy outline of a figure walking across the floor and vanishing suddenly. Other pretty standard ghostly behaviour has also been reported: rattling chairs, moving objects, strange clouds of cigar smoke and mysterious cold spots. Staff are said to have heard groaning voices coming from the cellar.

The pub’s ceiling is covered with notes which have been put there by visitors who hope to get rid of the ghost by paying off his gambling debts. I’m guessing the pub owners are quite happy it doesn’t seem to have worked, yet.

18 Wilton Row, Belgrave Square, Hyde Park Corner, SW1

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Russian space capsules, writing and summer – just some stuff I’ve been thinking about lately

photo-1429305336325-b84ace7eba3b Image by Blair Fraser.

– What happened to the Russian space capsule falling through space? Has it burned up? Has it landed somewhere? During that blurry time around the UK general election I remember reading it was going to crash in the Thames. I’m pretty sure that a) I didn’t make that up and b) it hasn’t happened.

– Editing is as enjoyable as writing. I’ve spent many years thinking fiction writing should be padded out, it’s not journalism so it should contain LOTS OF WORDS and LOTS OF DESCRIPTION. But that’s a misconception (my misconception). It shouldn’t be lengthy and wordy, it should be true. Just write one true sentence some famous author is supposed to have told himself before sitting down at his typewriter. That’s good advice. Fewer words, more meaning.

aa322c2d Image by David Marcu.

– It will be June soon, but London is cold and rainy today. Summer doesn’t feel possible yet. We’ll go to Finland for a week in June. Before then I’m writing three new pieces on the UK economy and a few other things. Before then we’re doing The Other Art Fair in Bristol. Things are happening so quickly I hardly have time to write them down on my to do list. Plate spinning, that’s what life is about.

– I’ve bought stacks of books from Amazon. Most of them are still in their envelopes on the kitchen table. I’ve bought enough books to keep me busy researching and reading over the summer. When I’ve read them all I might be ready to tackle a new big project again.

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