Noxious odours aren't always so bad

To hell with the smells. Indeed the more it pongs, the more efficient it is

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If, at the risk of getting hate mail, I tell you that we live in Flood Street, just off the Thames Embankment by Albert Bridge, you will not be surprised to learn that I haven't set foot outside my front door since Wednesday morning. Last Tuesday night, we had a mother of a thunderstorm with monsoon rain which, apart from bringing the Underground to a halt, caused some sort of blockage in the city's drainage system resulting in 600,000 tonnes of raw sewage being pumped into the river. Presumably there's a very good reason why Flood Street got its name. Until I hear the all clear, I'm staying well and truly put.

If, at the risk of getting hate mail, I tell you that we live in Flood Street, just off the Thames Embankment by Albert Bridge, you will not be surprised to learn that I haven't set foot outside my front door since Wednesday morning. Last Tuesday night, we had a mother of a thunderstorm with monsoon rain which, apart from bringing the Underground to a halt, caused some sort of blockage in the city's drainage system resulting in 600,000 tonnes of raw sewage being pumped into the river. Presumably there's a very good reason why Flood Street got its name. Until I hear the all clear, I'm staying well and truly put.

This morning, I heard a report from an intrepid correspondent on a boat not far from Chelsea Harbour. He said that the sides of his boat were being bumped by the dead bodies of bloated carp, that the stench from the river was horrific, and that the colour and consistency of the water was - I won't elaborate. I'm glad my daughter has ditched the boyfriend with a houseboat near Chelsea Bridge. She loved being on it in the summer when, she said, they could sunbathe on deck. I doubt they'll be doing much sunbathing right now, even though it is sweltering outside, unless they had a couple of handy gas masks.

Maybe I'm being over-sensitive. We have become so fastidious and deodorised, we rarely come into contact with the sort of natural earthy smells our Elizabethan ancestors, strolling along the embankment, took for granted. Given the choice in terms of fuel between exhaust fumes and horse droppings, I settle for the latter every time, despite Peter Ackroyd's lurid descriptions of the capital's principal thoroughfares during Victorian times in his biography of London.

Admittedly there's all the difference in the world between the smell of a stable and the stench of a public lavatory or even a beautifully appointed ladies' powder room, as I discovered some years ago. I was working in Tehran, and a colleague invited me for the weekend to her parents' house in Isfahan.

It was more like a palace, all marbled floors, mosaic tiles and solid gold taps in the downstairs cloakroom. No one but me appeared to notice the gut-wrenching whiff that hit you when you opened the door, which got steadily worse as you headed for the footprints on either side of the dark hole in the floor. I'm terrified of falling into Asian lavatories, though I'm reliably informed they are both more ergonomic and hygienic than our pedestal variety. Squatting is more natural than sitting, and there are no S bends in which the stuff can get trapped.

If this is all becoming a bit basic I apologise, but if you had 600,000 tonnes of raw sewage floating sluggishly about less than 200 yards from your front door your thoughts, too, might tend towards the basic. I should be used to the scenario. My mother's cottage isn't on mains drainage, and has its own septic tank which is always going wrong. When plumbers and sewage experts come to advise us, they usually end up telling us to shove whole cheeses and bits of rotting meat down it to provide more bacteria. It's all these hygienic cleaning fluids that are making it go wrong; to hell with the smells, indeed the more it pongs, the more efficient it is.

For a long time, the bottom flat in our block was rented by a pretty air-hostess called Charlene from Philadelphia who worked for Pan Am. When she was on long hauls, she might be away for up to two weeks at a stretch.

I shall never forget the morning she flew in from Bangkok to discover that, like Tuesday night's débâcle, except on a smaller domestic level, something had gone wrong with the drainage system in our block and all our lavatories had backed up into hers for a fortnight, and the overflow was now leaking into the rest of her flat. Poor Charlene was whey-faced and quivering when she came upstairs to break the news. All she could say was: "Oh my God, my God."

Here's an appropriate Billy Connolly story to end with on a cheerier note. A television crew was making a documentary about Glasgow's oldest public lavatory attendant.

It was a job with its ups and downs, said Mac. People took liberties in public lavatories. They covered the walls with graffiti, they left litter everywhere, they injected themselves with God-knows-what, they threw up.

"When someone just uses the place for a dump it's like a breath of fresh air," he said.

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