The GREAT STINK
The most important Great Stink in British history is the stink of 1858 when sewage backed up in the Thames and made the Houses of Parliament uninhabitable. Bazalgette was given free rein to solve the problem at all costs, which he did. One suspects that if the stink had remained confined to the East End it would have been many more years before London got a proper sewerage system.
In my own lifetime I could enumerate the Naburn Smell, which was eventually blamed on the sewage works south of York. A stink that lasted a long time and as far as I know was never fully explained was the Long Melford Smell that plagued a village in Suffolk. The best guess was that it was agricultural in origin. However, the Great Stink that I am describing here is the short-lived offence to the pulmonary tract and olfactory organ that occurred one glorious summer's day in Littlemore. Sufficient time has elapsed, I estimate, for it to be safe to put a true account of it before the public.
The background to the story is thus: a privet hedge that marked the boundary between my house and the neighbours had got wider over the years despite cutting and pruning, and it was harbouring dust and dirt and a wide range of insect pests. So I decided to cut it down with the intention of eventually replacing it by a neat wooden picket fence. This I did, one summer's day, and to dispose of it I constructed a fire-pit. I dug out a substantial hole, and excavated channels leading into the pit at each corner, angled so as to create a vortex on the Roman hypocaust principle that I had learnt while helping with the excavations at Verulamium. I then lit a small fire at the bottom of the pit, and started feeding modest quantities of privet into it, a bit at a time. Most satisfactorily the resultant plume of smoke went straight upwards, there being no wind, and no nuisance was being caused to anybody.
I had only disposed of a small proportion of the ton or so of privet in this way when Valerie, my wife, appeared on the scene.
“What on earth are you doing?”
I explained the principle of the hypocaust, which I was very proud of, because it was consuming even green privet without causing any trouble to anybody. She gave me a long stare.
“You must be bloody mad.”
She proceeded to drag all the privet towards the fire and she piled it up, nearly a ton of it, in a big heap over the central flame.
At this point I went indoors and shut all the windows. It was obvious what was going to happen. In fact it happened quicker than I expected. A purple fog appeared at ground floor window level and started to rise higher and higher. You could see the top of the fog right across to the flats in the next street. But you could not see through the fog. It was a real pea-souper, only purple. Not much later, we had to go upstairs to see the spread of the pollution. All washing on lines in the neighbourhood had already turned purple and disappeared from view. Then from round about came the sound of oaths and windows slamming. Eventually the purple fog rose higher than the upstairs windows, and the houses were completely enveloped in this foul stink. People who had gone out and left a window open must have found the inside of their houses full of it as well, for it was clearly very dense and it would have displaced breathable air.
Next day there was a local inquest into the Great Littlemore Stink. Of course, one merit of the high density and opacity of the offending gas, from our point of view, was that nobody could see where it was coming from. As far as I know, Valerie and I were never suspected. I guess that both of us were well practised at feigning innocence from misspent school years. Naturally we did not know anything about the matter, but expressed due concern, etc etc. Readers will understand why the truth has been delayed in the telling for so long.
In spite of the thickness of the old privet hedge, our cat could easily get underneath it in order to gain access to the garden next door. Our neighbour, Mr Strange, used to cultivate his back garden assiduously, and every spring he reduced it to what the gardening books call “a fine tilth”.
Then he measured out rows with string tied to pegs, and planted straight rows of vegetable seeds. Naturally a fine tilth was interpreted by cats as an ideal earth closet. Our cat was the worst offender because it was a feral cat and its mother had obviously not trained it properly. It would scrape a huge hole in the middle of Mr Strange's seed bed, then it would look around to admire the small barrow that it had created. In doing so, it would turn round through several degrees, sufficient that its business was extruded on top of the spoil heap. Then it would turn round a little further to admire that. Then, with every appearance of satisfaction with a job well done, it would go through the motions of filling in the hole, but in actuality it dug another hole on the far side of its mound. So when Mr Strange came to check the progress of his vegetable seeds, he would find two big holes and a large hillock between them crowned by a fly-infested pile of stinking cat dung.
Maybe in the end Mr Strange obtained a successful cat repellent, because in its later years our cat transferred its attentions to the house across the road. It would simply crap on the doorstep. Every day. No effort at concealment. To be honest, if cats were teachable I would have taught our cat to do exactly that, because I did not like the people over the road.