Exactly what it says on the tin
Ok, this one’s fairly personal. Personal. And angry.
So you’ve been warned. Switch off now – proceed no further – if you’d rather not go where I’m going to take you.
Undecided? Well, if it’s a factor – it’s not long, this podcast. It’s no more than 14 or 15 minute listen.
And hey, no way I would ever put up on the London Walks podcast something that’s 100 percent personal. This isn’t 100 percent personal. Some of this cup of bitterness runneth over into “this is London today territory.” And some of it touches on matters of London history. That’s why I’ve written it up and am putting it out.
The tale starts at home. My house. Our house. An ok, in-betweener size – not big, not small, – comfortable late Victorian terrace house in West Hampstead. We like it a lot. Nine rooms, garden, roof top terrace, small attic, cellar. Solidly built. Great location. Wonderful street. We’re happy bunnies here. Have lived here a long time, getting on for a quarter of a century.
Next door – similar house – there lived Monica and Miles, a lovely old Irish couple. They died a few years ago. Their daughters sold their house. And then it was sold again. To a guy who buys up old houses and “converts” them. With that word “converts” in inverted commas, quotation marks as Americans say.
The “developer” – I’m starting to hate that word – the developer, Mr. Money Bags converted the house next door to nine studio units. Each with its own toilet and basin, each with its own shower, each with its own kitchen unit.
In the words of Rob, our plumber, “up to 18 people, nine toilets, nine showers, – etc. for a four inch outflow pipe that was designed for one or two toilets – basically that’s a mismatch. The existing plumbing infrastructure isn’t equal to the demands being put on it. It’s going to be overwhelmed. There are going to be problems.”
And there have been. Twice in just over a year. The final piece to the ugly puzzle is topography. We live on a hill. We’re downhill from the “converted” property. So gravity gets in on the act. Fluids flow downhill.
Yup. So that’s twice our previously bone-dry cellar – bone dry for over 20 years – has been flooded with sewage from next door. A lake of urine in our cellar. Twice in 18 months. The first time Thames Water took the rap. Kicking and screaming. They didn’t want to. You can imagine, a day digging up a street, doing repairs, paying three crewmen – it’s not cheap. But the blockage was apparently just over the line in their bailwick. So they had no choice. The culprit that time appears to have been wet wipes. Which I’m told don’t break down, don’t distintegrate. Down the toilet they go and then they end up bunching up – that coagulated mass grows. Clogs things up. Sooner or later you get a blockage. Well, that tumour of wet-wipes made it as far as Thames Water territory before it pitched camp. So Thames Water had to step up. We took that as a small mercy. We didn’t fancy trying to take on the wealthy developer. Visions of legal costs, delaying tactics, wearing us down, etc.
Anything else? Yes, turns out there was no planning permission for what’s happened to next door, a court action was brought by the council, the outcome of which – well, we don’t where all that got to. We do know where the conversion’s effluent gets to.
A couple of days ago we opened the cellar door and sure enough, the monster was back. Another lake of urine. We wouldn’t have known until the stench told its ugly tale. They’d obviously flooded – flooded’s a genteel word in the circumstances – they’d obviously flooded next door. We got the overflow. The ankle-deep overflow. Mary happened to look out the window and saw a couple of workmen hovering over a drain. She went out and ask them what’s going on? They said, “the basement’s flooded.” That sent her to our cellar door. To discover what had been visited upon us. The which discovery occasioned a second flood, a second overflow. Of tears.
If Mary hadn’t looked out the window and seen those workmen – and asked what they were doing – well, what do you think the likelihood our neighbour – I use the word neighbour advisedly because he isn’t of course – but what do you think the likelihood is our neighbour would have told us, “we’ve had a blockage here, maybe you should check your cellar.” That’s right. No chance at all. That scenario – something’s broken. Greed, absenteeism, “their problem not mine”, “I can get away with it because I can get away with it – and because my pockets are deep” – those are signposts on the road to what ethologists call a ‘behavioural sink.’ Look it up.
Anyway, back to the foetid lake… Wading into it – carrying soaking stuff – if only it were soaking with water, we should be so lucky – up the cellar steps, through the kitchen – yes, it’s every bit the horror-show you’re imagining – through the kitchen and out the back door to the garden. To dry. And then be thrown away. Rob the plumber came round. It got pumped out. And things are where they are. Needless to say we’ve been on to the Council. Of course they’re beleagured, ham-strung right now because of Covid. There’s a Shakespeare phrase I’m particularly fond of – in fact, I’m in the process of writing about it for another podcast – the phrase, it’s from Hamlet, is, “when sorrows come they come not single spies, but in battalions.” I’m partial to the phrase and, yes, I occasionally tweak it. That’s nervy, eh. David of London Walks subbing Shakespeare. Anyway, you can pick and choose. Shakespeare’s word was ‘sorrows.’ And, yes, ‘sorrows’ works in this context. But you could also say ‘troubles’. “When troubles come they come not single spies, but in battalions.”
In this instance, the battalion called Covid. And then, for us, the second wave – wave being the mot juste – the second wave of a lake of neighbours’ urine in our cellar. And they’re not even proper neighbours. They’re temporary occupants of a “London conversion.” Of studios.
Conversion is the word for it in more senses than one. It’s converted our spirits, our equanimity, our peace of mind, our sense of well being. It’s converted how we feel about our home.
And finally, it’s converted something else. This is what we discovered an hour ago when we were out in the garden, clothes-pins on our noses, looking at the stuff we carried up out of our cellar.
This is the “conversion” that’s prompted our most recent email to the council planning and environmental departments.
The “conversion” that’s prompted me to write this podcast.
The “conversion” that’s pushed this matter over the line from the personal to something of wider concern, of historical concern.
What I wrote to the Council official puts the matter succinctly.
I’m going to quote the email in its entirety. It’s short.
That email – which I’m about to read out – will be the knell that tolls the end of this podcast. The email is illustrated with a photograph I took this morning. A photograph of a completely ruined century-old album of late Victorian photographs.
The email goes like this.
It’s headed up with the subject line: Mental health as well as physical health
Dear Ms. Ryan,
Several beyond price, very old, of historical note* – this one, for example, is dated 1916 – family photo albums have been destroyed in the lake of urine “Mr. Property Developer’s little earner” sluiced into our cellar. They should have been safe. They were stored in a zipped up professional photographer’s “roller” in our bone dry cellar. Rollers of that standard protect expensive camera gear from the elements. But they are not proof against being submerged in a lake of urine. Something precious and irreplaceable has been destroyed, irretrievably lost – not just to our family but to our (Hampstead’s, Camden’s, London’s) collective historical memory. In time those albums would have gone to Kenwood or Burgh House or Fenton House or perhaps the British Library. These documents, these pieces of the past, have been lost, destroyed – compliments of this utterly selfish, clumsy, grasping, crude, mindless, o’erweening greed and carelessness. In a word, this barbarism.
In profound sadness.
Signed (by me, David)
And then there’s an explanatory footnote. *Mary’s great grandfather – her maternal grandmother’s father – was very wealthy. She, ‘Granny’, grew up in Parkfield, now known as Witanhurst, “the second largest house” in London (after Buckingham Palace). Mary’s great grandfather sold the house to the magnate Arthur Crosfield, who was the key player in the saving of Kenwood and “the Northern Heights of Hampstead Heath” The photographs bore witness to – told the story of – a lost world, the world of a large and very prosperous late Victorian and Edwardian family and household in the second largest house in London. A house of no little importance to the London story generally and the Hampstead and Camden story in particular.