London’s history has been defined by its relationship to dirt. “Shit, filth and flies everywhere” was how Rotund W. Tippety first described his sight of inner-city London. That was back in 1566. Nothing much has changed. Yes, on a physical, empirical, material, logical and mathematical and scientific and English and History based basis, it has all changed. But what really has changed? Nothing much has changed. Yes, the roads are no longer filled with shit, at least not of the literal kind.
But, the compensation is that Londoners feel the need to vent anal-based spleen in public in whatever way possible, as evidenced by Mary Small’s recent studies into Londoners’ collective anal fixation, Mind the Anal Fixation: Why Londoners are Weird, which chronicles events in London’s history from a unique ‘pü-based perspective’. Like a may pole, its central tenet revolves around the axiom that at heart, all Londoners are ‘monkeys needing to throw their pü at each other’. Small makes the essential distinction between the word ‘poo’ and the pü concept by explaining
One is spelt like the normal word ‘poo’ and one is spelt pü.
Pü, maintains Small, is the propeller driving the “helicopter of progress” that helped give rise to the Industrial Revolution. She argues that during this time, when London was the centre of the world,
Pollution was at its highest. Our health levels were at their lowest; the level of pü was higher than ever before, for, crucially, pollution’s pü is even more toxic than that created by actual ‘poo’, and the plague, which, crucially, contains the word pü, albeit without the umlaut, but nonetheless, the point remains valid [Small’s initials, not mine].
The point is finally made:
Plague arrives in the 17th century and many die. England’s power as a naval force grows. The Industrial Revolution wreaks havoc with people’s lungs and many die. We reach our apex. In the early 20th century Spanish Flu wipes out millions. We win World War One. In the Sixties Londoners cower from an attack from a radioactive ox. We create the Beatles*. Highest level of pollution = highest level of power. Fact.
Holding to her theory like a captain holding forth on a ship made of academia, Small navigates the waters of controversy by making a valid point that without pü, London would have not have maintained its high spirits during The Blitz; for, in the externalisation of pü realised in the total-aesthetic of the V2, Londoners
...could see their own pü extended beyond themselves; Hitler was the final embodiment of the pü built up over the years: but, through their collective pü experience, from the Plague to the smokes of industry, Londoners found in themselves a complete redemption, a unique innocence unseen before or since. Each and every Londoner was clean, for their inner souls were made whole by the
At which point Small began to lose my interest, but nonetheless up until this point (coincidentally the point at which she herself admitted to feeling ‘a little drained’ in her autobiography) she presents a valid argument that without the dirt of history ingrained in their pores, each Londoner could not have coped with having the ultimate dirt rained down upon them – the dirt of seemingly certain annihilation.
It is said that in AD 43 when Londinium was first established by Claudius, he told his generals
Iacio is urbs super a flumen. Planto is splendidus. Planto is novus. Opus sulum sinew, frendo sulum lacertosus, fluo sudo, cruor quod bone in is partum; pro is ero urbs of totus civis.
[Lay this city upon a river. Make it magnificent. Make it new. Work each sinew, grind each muscle, pour sweat, blood and bone into this creation; for it will be the city of all cities.]
His soldiers, and those following in their footsteps, took his orders to heart, and poured all their energy into the task. In AD 200, when constructing the London Wall, one soldier, Tiberius Cornelius Silvanus, was said to have run out of bricks. Looking around for resources, he discovered to his horror that there were no more pestles available, nor cement. So, he took it upon himself to create his own. As recorded by the diary of a fellow soldier, Silvanus
Made a space for himself far from the rest of us, but not far enough to fail to arouse our curiosity. He squatted, and produced forth a specimen the likes of which we had never seen.
This exact brick can be found on a section of the wall that has remained on Barbican Estate. Upon closer inspection, the brick itself seems a shade darker than the others, although I was not inclined to touch it in case I got germs. It is even possible to theorise that more than one brick was produced by this method, if one inspects Silvanus’s diary entry from that day:
Today I shat bricks.
It will by now be fairly obvious to all who are familiar with London colloquialisms that the phrase ‘to shit a brick’ originates from this event.
Celebrating its own past, and predicting the faeces of the future, London now remorselessly grasps its own shit and lays it out on a canvas for the public to see, as witnessed in high-profile events, such as the Turner Prize, London Fashion Week, openings of clubs in Mayfair, Camden Market, and every article by AA Gill.
* One mistake: the Beatles came from Liverpool.