Excerpt from The Great Stink by Clare Clark, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Great Stink

By Clare Clark

The Great Stink
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2005,
    368 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2006,
    372 pages.

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Chapter 1

Where the channel snaked to the right it was no longer possible to stand upright, despite the abrupt drop in the gradient. The crown of William's hat grazed the slimed roof as he stooped, holding his lantern before him, and the stink of excrement pressed into his nostrils. His hand was unsteady and the light shuddered and jumped in the darkness. Rising and rushing through the narrower gully, the stream pressed the greased leather of his high boots hard against the flesh of his calves, the surge of the water muffling the clatter of hooves and iron-edged wheels above him. Of course he was deeper now. Between him and the granite-block road was at least twenty feet of heavy London clay. The weight of it deepened the darkness. Beneath his feet the rotten bricks were treacherous, soft as crumbled cheese, and with each step the thick layer of black sludge sucked at the soles of his boots. Although his skin bristled with urgency, William forced himself to walk slowly and deliberately the way the flushers had shown him, pressing his heel down hard into the uncertain ground before unrolling his weight forward on to the ball of his foot, scanning the surface of the water for rising bubbles. The sludge hid pockets of gas, slop gas the flushers called it, the faintest whiff of which they claimed could cause a man to drop unconscious, sudden as if he'd been shot. From the little he knew of the toxic effects of sulphuretted hydrogen, William had every reason to believe them.

The pale light of his lantern sheered off the black crust of the water and threw a villain's shadow up the curved wall. Otherwise there was no relief from the absolute darkness, not even in the first part of the tunnel where open gratings led directly up into the street. All day the fog had crouched low over London, a chocolate-coloured murk that reeked of sulphur and defied the certainty of dawn. In vain the gas-lamps pressed their circles of light into its upholstered interior. Carriages loomed out of the darkness, the stifled skitters and whinnies of horses blurring with the warning shouts of coachmen. Pedestrians, their faces obscured by hats and collars, slipped into proximity and as quickly out again. On the river the hulking outlines of the penny steamers resembled a charcoal scrawl over which a child had carelessly drawn a sleeve. Now, at nearly six o'clock in the evening, the muddy brown of afternoon had been smothered into night. William was careful to close the shutter of his lantern off beneath the open gratings, as furtive as a sewer-hunter. It was bad enough that he was alone, without a look-out at ground level, in direct contravention of the Board's directives. It would be even harder to explain his presence here, in a section of the channel recently declared unsafe and closed off until extensive repair work could be undertaken. William could hardly protest to be innocent of the decision. He had written the report requiring it himself, his first official report to the Board:

Within the southern section of the King-street branch deterioration to interior brickwork is severe, with the shoulder of the arch particularly suffering from extensive decomposition. While tidal scour can be relied upon to prevent undue accumulation of deposits, the high volumes of floodwater sustained within the tunnel during periods of full tide and heavy rainfall pose a grave threat to the stability of the interior structure. Underpinning of the crown is urgently required to prevent subsidence. DANGER.

The precision of the words had satisfied him. Within them was contained the evidence of a world where method and reason strapped down chaos. On their very first day as assistants to the Commission the group of young men had been taken to meet Mr Bazalgette himself. One of their number, eager to ingratiate himself with the master, had begged him to disclose what he considered the characteristics of a successful engineer. Bazalgette had paused, his fingers against his lips. When he spoke it was quietly, almost to himself. The great engineer, he said, was a pragmatist made conservative by the conspicuous failures of structures and machines hastily contrived. He was regular in his habits, steady, disciplined, methodical in his problem-solving. He was equable and law-abiding. Carelessness, self-indulgence, untidiness and fits of temper were foreign to him. From the turmoil of his natural instincts he brought order.

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Copyright © Clare Clark, 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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