I lived, while in England, at a confluence—the intersection of a pedestrian lane, which led to three pubs, and a busy road, which led to practically everywhere else. We could tell the time by the street noise: At eleven, precisely, the pubs closed, the pub goers staggered out into the lane, and suddenly the night was filled with singing, howling, laughter, clamorous arguments, and the rattle of taxis idling in the road. “You know,” our eldest daughter observed one night, when the noise was keeping her awake, “you can tell when a person has been drinking too much, because his brain keeps telling him, Sing and be stupid! Sing and be stupid!”
Our apartment was in an austere Georgian building, up one dim, cold, cobwebby flight of stairs, and the garden gate, as we discovered almost immediately, invited a host of late-night visitors. If you had acquired something at the pub that you suddenly wanted desperately to be rid of, our gate was as good a place as any to unburden yourself. Many, many mornings as we set out with the children for school, we had to navigate leftovers, solid or liquid, deposited there by strangers in the small hours.
Once, in the middle of the day—it was during the World Cup finals, while England was still in play, and I was great, to put it mildly, with our third child—I came lumbering home from someplace to find a man relieving himself on our gate. It was an awkward social encounter, the likes of which I have yet to read about in Miss Manners. What could I do? What could he do? We blinked at each other, then looked away in embarrassment. I was embarrassed, at any rate. He betrayed no emotion whatsoever on being confronted midstream in a public lane by a pregnant woman. After an eternal moment, he zipped up and shambled away, and I stepped over the steaming lake he had left in my garden.
“Now it is a strange thing,” muses J. R. R. Tolkien in The Hobbit, “but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling.”
And so when people ask about our life in Cambridge, I tell them about our tiny bathroom, situated across the freezing stairwell from the flat proper, so that getting out of the shower safely depended on having memorized the neighbors’ schedules. I talk about the rain leaking in through the casement windows in
the hall, of the night the entryway ceiling fell in and the months expended in its repair, of the drunks bawling out “Happy Birthday” at the taxi stand, of the man who peed on the gate. In short, though life went on uneventfully for the most part, and many things about it were lovely in the extreme, at the end of the day the story lies, as stories tend to do, chiefly in the eventful and unlovely.
The British historian Emily Cockayne agrees. “This book,” she begins her recent Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, “is about the ways in which people made life unpleasant for each other” in English towns of the early modern period. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the potential for urban unpleasantness was apparently almost infinite, and of almost infinite variety.
Many cities, including London prior to the Great Fire of 1666, were straining at their medieval seams. Old houses were overcrowded, often poorly maintained, and waiting—as happened in London—to go up in flames. Ancient streets were narrow, dark, poorly paved, and prowled by footpads and cutpurses. Pigs, cattle, and dogs roamed at will through the town centers. Tanneries and chandlers’ shops stank. Coppersmiths were “engaged all day in hammering copper,” according to the account of Bernardino Ramazzini, an Italian physician, and “the ears are injured by that perpetual din.” Coal smuts darkened the houses and storefronts and begrimed the faces of people in the street. Privies emptied into ditches and rivers. Coaches and carts churned up mud and crushed children beneath their wheels.
Even inside, with the door shut on the clamor of the street, there was no escape from irritations, large and small. The walls and the bedding were damp; the windows admitted little daylight. The taste buds and the digestion endured food that was moldy, sour, rotting, and adulterated by everything from hairs and stones to maggots. Odors of excrement, sweat, and foul breath assaulted the nose. Extremes of human ugliness affronted the eye: cleft lips, pockmarks, hunchbacks, dwarfism, noses eaten away by syphilis. As Hubbub represents it, the early-modern English town, outdoors and in, was a stinking, clanging, entropic swamp, a conflation of several levels of Dante’s hell. Who would have wanted to visit, let alone live there?
Mustn’t grumble, as the English famously say, often as a preamble to grumbling. Emily Cockayne’s Hubbub purports to be the history of a time and a place, but ultimately its true subject is the perennial human proclivity not only for irritation but for finding irritation perversely pleasurable, particularly as a literary subject. Cockayne’s narrative is a deliberately impressionistic landscape study of complaints, which are often so vivid as to suggest a salacious enjoyment in the act of writing them. Hubbub derives its flavorful collective voice from a cast of contemporary observers, including Samuel Pepys, Thomas Tryon, Dudley Ryder, Ned Ward, Anthony Wood, Tobias Smollett, and Margaret Cavendish—all of whom seem to have relished committing their trials and hypersensitivities to prose.
As Cockayne points out, we rely at our own risk on the testimony of “sensitive souls” given to “sweeping and bilious comments that amplify occasional unpleasant experiences and package them in hyperbole.” Well, yes. And to my mind that’s really the point. We can assume that if these writers of the period found conditions difficult, then certainly anonymous others did as well. We can also assume that really, truly, every minute of every day for every person then living was not the ongoing pan-sensory torment that it is represented to be in these pages. But where’s the fun in that?
The “uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome” carries the day. Tobias Smollett, in the spiky persona of Matt Bramble, characterizes London bread as “a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone-ashes, insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution.” “Most or all beds do perfectly stink,” pronounces Thomas Tryon, adding that feather beds, in particular, absorb “all evil Vapours . . . breathed forth by various Diseased People.” Tryon deals further with the more generally “unwholesome” city air, calling attention to “stinking, gross, sulphurous Smoaks . . . very often Pernicious to Mankind, by Infecting the common Air with terrible Pestilences and Distempers.”
Still, concludes Cockayne, “many, like the indomitable Samuel Pepys, saw opportunity and excitement in their dirty, noisy and smelly cities, even with their shoes mired in turd. Indeed, it could have been worse. They could have been stranded in the countryside, with crude, turnip-eating ‘clownish, lubberly, untaught, barbarous, ignorant, blundering, plain . . . rude, slovenly, absurd, boysterous, blustering’ rustic fools, who, to judge by this kitchen-midden of adjectives, would have been at least as much fun to gripe about as were the manifold and invigorating miseries of the city.”
My husband, banging away at his laptop late one night beneath the open window, overheard two parties coming up the lane from the pub arguing about the existence of God. Neither man, he told me later, had a secure grip on the English language. The man who believed in God was the better English speaker; the English word with which he seemed to be most familiar, and with which he liberally seasoned his apologia, was that sturdy Anglo-Saxonism that rhymes with fire truck.
Five years later, I can’t remember what my husband was working on just then, and neither can he. That day in our life is lost to us. But those fragments of shouted conversation flash in our shared memory like neon signs by a highway in the dark. Ask us what our days in England were like, and that’s the tale we’ll tell.
Sally Thomas is a poet and homeschooling mother in Tennessee.