Thursday, 30 April 2009

Blognator fuit hic

The third worst curse in ancient China is supposed to have been 'May you live in interesting times'. What's wrong with living in interesting times, I hear you ask? Well, my bloggy friends, there's a difference between interesting and...well...interesting. And the last couple of days has been interesting in italics; we've had the plumbers in.

I'm not sure why, but having tradespeople in the house makes me nervous. We've a biggish house (six bedrooms at last count), and it should be fairly easy to avoid them as they go about the business of ripping out old washbasins and making good the walls (or should that be 'making the walls good'?) but, for some reason I just can't seem to get away from them. Every time I walk into a room, turn a corner or start to climb the stairs, you can bet a length of copper pipe that one or other of them will be there. After a while you feel sure that they feel sure that you're just checking up on them; making sure they put down the dust sheets before ripping plaster off the walls, or placing their umpteenth cup of tea (two sugars) on the coaster, not on top of the recently polished pine drawers. So, having been made to feel like an interloper in my own house, I just gave up moving around the place, and, for the last couple of days, I've become something of a recluse, sat in front of the computer, idly dipping my toes in the electronic surf instead of getting out and walking by the real stuff. So perhaps it's not surprising that the subject of plumbing has been rather on my mind.

The word plumbing comes from the Latin word plumbum, meaning lead (that's why the chemical symbol for lead is Pb). Way back when, plumbers didn't change tap washers or ballcocks, mainly because neither of these things existed. Plumbers were artisans who worked with lead. The chances are that, if the lead of your local church roof is still intact and hasn't been pinched by a bunch of desperate ruffians, it was installed by plumbers. The roof of Old Saint Paul's Cathedral in London was referred to as 'The Leads', and gentlemen of note would climb up to the roof to take in the prospect of London. Often they would carve their names in the soft lead covering to prove that they had been there. Or rather, they wouldn't; they would get a servant to do it for them. How posh is that - employing someone to do you graffiti for you!

Of course, the roof of the cathedral, and everything else, for that matter, was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Diarist John Evelyn recorded that 'the stones of Paul's flew like grenadoes, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them'. Curiously, he doesn't mention dogs. Or rats, of which there was a superabundance.

The use of lead pipes in plumbing is far older. The Romans (he's on about the Romans again!) used huge quantities of the stuff to feed private homes, public fountains, baths, and, of course, the Emperors' palaces. Lead would be bashed out into flat sheets, then wrapped around a wooden pole to make a rough cylinder and soldered. Pipes were joined together with the same solder. Citizens could pay to have water piped directly into their homes, paying different amounts depending upon the bore of the pipe; a kind of early water-metering system. Some examples of Roman lead pipe can still be seen in the wonderful city of Bath, or Aquae Sulis as the Romans called it. Lead was the preferred metal for water pipes into the 20th century; my own house, at the ripe old age of 102, still has odd bits of lead pipe sticking out of the walls at odd angles!

Lead pipes aside, the Romans were quite hot on hygiene, which makes the following all the more surprising. Roman latrines were often quite cleverly designed. Stone benches with appropriately sized holes in them were sited over a drain or gutter, along which fresh water would flow to take away the...erm...waste products. These latrines were generally a communal affair, with quite a number of available seats and absolutely no privacy; you could pass the time of day with the neighbouring user, or perhaps even transact a bit of business. Pictorial reconstructions generally show Roman soldiers sitting on these things and sharing a joke or two with their fellows, but it's now accepted by many historians that they squatted on the bench over the hole, rather than sat - not unlike the current practice in many Mediterranean countries. Now, here comes the surprising bit. Sad to report, the Romans didn't have access to toilet paper but, ever enterprising, they came up with a novel idea; sea sponges. Natural sponges were harvested from the sea, attached to sticks, and used in lieu (in loo?) of toilet paper. One simply dipped the sponge in the running water below, deployed it as instructed, and then dipped it in the water to rinse it off. These sponges were communal. A slave, destined to die in the Flavian Amphitheatre, cheated the masses by ramming one of these sponge-sticks down his throat and choking to death. What a way to go. But at least it shows that, even those who were about to die for the amusement of the Emperor had access to life's little comforts.

Now, you probably want to know about the other two Chinese curses, don't you? The second worst was 'May you come to the attention of those in authority'. And the worst: 'May you find what you are looking for'. Now, where did I put that winning lottery ticket?


Madame DeFarge said...

I remember buying a postcard from Housesteads Roman fort that showed the Romans using the sponges. It made me laugh. When I was about 10. In fact when we visit Roman forts, we always find the latrines easily. I've obviously drawn to them.

Do the plumbers eat Hobnobs? Every plumber I've known eats Hobnobs.

Comedy Goddess said...

Those Romans. Was everything communal?

chris hale said...

Hi MDF. Just reading a fascinating book about The Wall at the moment. The author seems to think moss was more readily available than sponges! Oh, and plumbers only eat HobNobs if you offer them; but they're a choking hazard and require a health and safety briefing.

Hi CG. Yep, most things were. They were a convivial (if bloodthirsty) bunch. A huge mass of contradictions. But that's for another day!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I'll have to send Trachelus Aplombus through the portal to finish your plumbing job! (He has three sugars, but always puts his mug on the coaster.)

You've now got me philosophising to myself about why should it not be good to find what you're looking for?!

Dedene said...

Did lead poisoning cause the decline of the Roman Empire?

The lead roof on the cathedrale in Reims was melted by bombs in WWI.

Hope you find what you're looking for.

mo.stoneskin said...

You have six bedrooms and yet never invite me to stay?!

I also feel uncomfortable with trades people in the house, which is why I tend to go only through recommendations.

Bizarrely, this reminds me of something Belloc wrote,

"It is a matter so often discussed why bakers are such excellent citizens and good men."

I vaguely remember him saying something slightly derogatory about the tradesfolk, but cannot remember what he said or where!

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

Now why, I wonder, have I only just seen this post? Perhaps you put it somewhere safe, when I wasn't looking!

Hope the space-invading, tea-swilling, lead-liners have now departed. Do you have H&C in all rooms?

chris hale said...

Raph - send him through - he sounds like a thoroughly efficient chap. And I bet he doesn't overcharge!

Dedene - it has been suggested, but I'm not so sure, since the Victorians had lead plumbing and they seemed to do alright!

Mo - Come on over! I do feel a bit guilty when I talk about 'trade'. It makes me sound awfully snobby...but I'm really not!

Derrick - No, we had all the grotty old basins ripped out. But we've also had the water main replaced, which meant that the garden looked like the Somme for a week. Now the house is covered in scaffolding. Happy days! Think I'll come to Melrose until all the work's done!

disa said...