March 12, 2015
Guests: Fenton Johnson - Lee Jackson
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After living alone for more than 20 years, my guest, writer Fenton Johnson, wanted to write about solitude and the people like himself who seek it. He'd already written about the contemplative life and the religious pursuit of solitude in his book, "Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey." The research had taken him to monasteries of different faiths. His own pursuit of solitude was inspired in part by growing up near the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, in the area of the Kentucky hills known as the Knobs. His family knew many of the monks, including Thomas Merton, and several were frequent dinner guests at his home when he was a child. He wrote the cover story in the April issue of Harper's called "Going It Alone: The Dignity And Challenge Of Solitude."
Fenton Johnson, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you live alone. Is this something you think of yourself as having chosen? Or is that just how it's worked out?
FENTON JOHNSON: Well, it's a question of fate and destiny. I think it's my destiny to live alone and to be alone. I think it is a combination of choice and circumstance, what we're given and what we make of what it is that we are given. At some point, I did make an active choice - a very active choice - to inhabit my aloneness. And that, I think, is probably the most relevant consideration in addressing that question.
GROSS: So what's the difference to you between living alone and living alone while inhabiting your aloneness?
JOHNSON: Well, I went through a long period where I had a partner. He died of AIDS in the great epidemic in San Francisco in 1990. I figured after that - I had a kind of pattern of serial monogamy - I figured that I would go through a grieving process, and then I would find another partner and settle down. And then the years passed. And I began to realize that not only was that not happening, but that I - that I felt... I don't know how to say this other than in the passive voice, that I felt called to a kind of aloneness in the secular world that enabled me to inhabit it, to inhabit what it is that I wanted to do with my life better than being in a relationship. I'm speaking for myself of course. Over the years, I began to realize that a lot of the writers, artists, musicians that I liked, was attracted to or reading, were people who themselves had never conventionally coupled. They tended to be alone throughout their lives. And I began to get a kind of uneasy sense of recognition that these people might be me. And so then I began to look at their work more carefully. And I realized that each of them has a quality of the work that I would describe as a kind of essential solitude that they are giving expression to.
GROSS: You grew up near monks. You grew up in the Kentucky hills, the area that's known as the Kentucky Knobs. And you were just, I don't know, a mile or two away from the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani. And this is where Thomas Merton lived and wrote. And he's famous for, among other things, writing "Seven Storey Mountain." And your family interacted with these monks regularly because they used to come to your home and share dinners and stories. What did you know as a child about what their monastic lives were like?
JOHNSON: Well, I feel very fortunate in that I didn't see this - I did see it, of course, as a life that was somewhat of an extraordinary choice, but that it was so thoroughly integrated with our lives. It was the '60s, a wild and crazy time, as we know. And many of the monks were exploring, shall we say, whether they wanted to remain in the monastery. And the wise abbots of the time allowed them to move fairly freely among the community, even though they lived in a cloistered community. Now, that was something that - that was a big change. That was because of the '60s. That had not been true prior to that. But consequently, we came to know them quite well. My father - my family has made whiskey for the last couple of centuries in those hills. And my father was working at a small distillery. Brother Fenton, after whom I was named, brought his fruitcake recipe to the monastery, partly as a way of getting lots of whiskey into the monastery. He devised a recipe that had a lot of whiskey in it. And my father became the conduit for the whiskey from the local distillery to the bourbon, from the local distillery into the monastery. And that became the foundation of, I now look back, extraordinary history. I took it for granted, of course. I had never been out of this town of 800 people and the hills. But I hardly remember a childhood supper where we didn't have a monk or two sitting at the dinner table. And they would come over for parties. And my mother would dance and sing with - climb on top of the kitchen table and dance with Brother Simeon or... You know, this was all just kind of a regular part of my childhood. And then I got out into the world (laughter) and realized that it was an unusual thing to have Trappist monks dancing on your kitchen table on New Year's Eve. So I guess I grew up in that kind of environment. It's hardly surprising that I would continue - that it would be a source of a lot of rich material for me.
GROSS: Just curious, where did whiskey fit into the monastic life?
JOHNSON: Well, you know, the monks have - many of the orders of the monks make alcohol. The Benedictines - certain orders make beer and, you know, liqueurs. There's never been a strange relationship between Roman Catholicism and alcohol. And in this case, it was just, you know, my father taught me never show up at a monastery without a bottle of bourbon tucked in the - you know, because if you want to make friends, you know, people will somehow, in the mysterious and marvelous ways of monasteries, people will find you out. And then you end up sitting in the cow barn, you know, swapping stories and - and really, I want to emphasize this, learning a lot about a true spiritual life. I don't want to give the impression that these men were - I guess you'd call them jack monks. Most of them, I think, were extremely serious about their vocations. But there's such a thing as merry monk, you know? And I had the privilege (laughter) of being exposed to a lot of them.
GROSS: So when you were young and were exposed to all these monks from the abbey, did you have any understanding of why they chose a life of communal solitude?
JOHNSON: You know, that's an interesting question. I, of course - as a child, I just accepted it as a given, the donnee, in a way that... You know, of course what you did on Corpus Christi in the high heat of June is that you all dressed up. And you went over and had these elaborate processions with gold monstrances and men decked out in gorgeous (laughter) clothing and singing in Latin. And, I mean, all of that was just part of the landscape. And I suppose in some sense, of course, it drew me because I inherited from my - both of my parents - a deep love of beauty. And here were these people who had - I think this may be the best way to describe a monastic life - people who had made a conscious choice to dedicate their lives to the pursuit and - the creation and the pursuit of beauty. And what I ask in the course of this essay in Harper's is whether we can take that noble motivation and transfer it into the - into the secular world, whether we can have a kind of, for solitaries, people I call solitaries - I borrowed the word from Merton - can have a kind of dedication to beauty that operates outside of a cloistered wall in the same way that it did for these men within the cloistered wall.
GROSS: It was a surprise for me to find this out, but it was one of the monks from the Abbey of Gethsemani that helped you realize that you weren't the only male in the world who was attracted to other males. This happens to be the monk that you are named after...
GROSS: Before your parents knew he was gay (laughter) and before he was out.
JOHNSON: Well, I think...
GROSS: You think they knew?
JOHNSON: I think my parents always knew that he was gay. It's a great story. I - you know, I - this is a town of, when I was growing up, 800 people. And it really was true. I loved getting my eyes examined because we drove to Louisville for it. And I loved going to a place that had parallel parking and traffic lights and escalators. That was enough for me, to keep me entertained for a day. So it was really an isolated environment. And I really, of course, like so many gay people in those days, thought of myself as being the only such person in the world. And Brother Fenton, who originated the fruitcake recipe that still supports the monastery, he left the monastery when I was about 5 years old. Prior to that, he would make me these fantastically elaborate cakes as his namesake. He would make me these huge Mickey Mouse heads or whatever for my birthdays. But he left the monastery. And he came back when I was about 15, for New Year's Eve, with a man. And there was the usual New Year's Eve party that the monks, you know, who were still in the monastery who were old friends of his came over, and we had a big celebration. And there was dancing on the table and all those things that my family did with the monks. And then he and his - the man that he had come with, left the next day. And in the silence that followed their departure, I understood that they were lovers because there was no subject that invoked a silence so vast and so unassailable as sex. And - you know, because if he had had - if they had just been friends, there would've been, you know - everybody would just sort of banter about who this person was. And, of course, if he had brought a woman, there would've been lots of sort of, you know, chitchat about well, gee, do you think they're going to get married or whatever. But there was just - after their departure, there was just silence. And I understood in that silence that these two men were lovers and that I was not the only person in the world who had that kind of attraction. And that I would find that out from my namesake, from Brother Fenton - there's some (laugher) marvelous, I don't know, wholeness that's at work there.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Fenton Johnson. He's a writer who has an article in the new edition, the April edition, of Harper's Magazine. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Fenton Johnson. His essay about solitude is the cover story in the April edition of Harper's.
So just in terms of your life of solitude, you live alone. But you teach. I'm sure you have neighbors. I don't think you live, like, in the middle of the woods...
GROSS: Far away from other houses. So I mean, you have your share of human connection in your life. You just are solitary in terms of your home time.
JOHNSON: Yes. And I would say, in fact, that I throw a mean party. And I am a good cook. And I throw a great dinner party. And I love nothing more than (laughter) to invite several well-chosen guests over, fix a really nice meal and get them a little drunk and then get them to talk about whatever it is that I'm writing about at that particular time because I get the benefit of their insight and perceptions to enrich my own work. I'm not writing about hermits, even though hermitry is a way of being in the world that I have a lot of respect for. I'm writing about people who are solitary travelers, who have embraced being solitary travelers because in that embrace of their destinies, they find the richest possible way of being in the world.
GROSS: In some ways, you are so outside the culture now because as somebody choosing a more solitary life, you are also, I am sure, choosing to not really engage with things like social media or, you know, lots of cable television or, you know, all the new, electronic device, digital kind of stuff that we have access to. And so, you know, in some respects, you're probably really losing touch with what's happening in our culture. And I wonder how you feel about that.
JOHNSON: I feel really, really good about it. (Laughter). I - my students say to me - my students are 21, 22, whatever - come into the classroom and they say, we can't keep up with the software. We can't keep up with what's happening. And I say, you can't keep up with what's happening? I have a terrible sense that this is a chatter that we are creating as a mask for the issues of serious, great consequence that we should be facing head-on and engaging.
GROSS: You wrote a memoir a few years ago about the love of your life, who died in 1990 or '91 of AIDS. You were together for about three years. Your memoir was called, "Geography Of The Heart." He was already HIV-positive when you met him. And I'm wondering how his death affected your choice to live alone. Some people might think that after he died, you thought, never again. I can never have a partner that would come close to what I had with him. He was the love of my life. So that - that idea of coupling was ended when he died. Does it - is your story anything like that?
JOHNSON: The evolution of my being alone - certainly his death deeply affected me. I will say this about grief, something I feel very strongly, which is that we're often told that - or expected to get over a great loss like that, a certain period of mourning - and that there's something wrong about preserving or continuing to dwell on a relationship like that in the past. I don't believe that at all. I think grief is probably the most idiosyncratic of emotions. And some people will lose a great love, and six months later, they will remarry to another great love. And for other people, it's important - it's emotionally sustaining for them to go about their lives with the memory of that great good fortune of having this person, this one person, enter their lives in that particular way. And I think both of those are entirely marvelous and defensible ways of being.
GROSS: And you fall into the second category?
JOHNSON: You know, things might change tomorrow. That's tomorrow. But the enterprise of solitude is to sit down and embrace what you have in the here and now. And we've turned that observation into a kind of cliche, as we often turn beautiful, true words in our society into cliches, I think because we're afraid of them. But it really is - we're afraid of their power or we don't want to inhabit their power. But if we really - if we really lived with what we have in the here and now, it would radically change how we live in the world. Thomas Merton again, what we have to be is what we are - what we are right here, right now. And solitude can be a way of fully inhabiting that way of being in the world.
GROSS: So we've been talking about the life of solitude, of having a certain amount of solitude in your life and living alone. You were very sick last week. You had a procedure that led to a systemic infection and had to go to the hospital. And it was a rough week. How did your conscious solitude work out when you were alone in the hospital? Did you feel like you had enough connection with people who were friends or colleagues or students or whatever, who were there for you and came and visited you when you maybe really wanted company and wanted support and reassurance?
JOHNSON: That is a very good question because it addresses the challenge of living alone, if you're living alone, which is the establishment of those kinds of networks. To experience the support and outpouring of love and affection was so moving that it almost made the illness worth the price of the ticket. Those people did come together for me. They did support me in a way that was extraordinary to witness. And during this week of illness - and I was very, very ill - I have to say that I got through some of the most difficult times, the 3 a.m., 4 a.m. times in the hospital, drawing upon the reservoir of strength that I had assembled over my time of living alone, of accepting being alone, of accepting that this is happening to me and it's OK. It is what it is. It's a different version of the autumn light falling across the room. And I don't think I could have - I don't think I could have gotten - I couldn't have gotten through those - the past week - without two ways of being in the world, one of which was the great love of my friends who came together to support me and family. And the other was that reservoir that I had built up in solitude of accepting illness, even death - especially death - as a necessary and beautiful part of what is, in its way. But at 3 and 4 o'clock in the morning, what I went back to a lot was sitting alone in silence, for day after day, with a Zen Buddhist community. And I went back to those times of sitting alone. And I drew a lot of strength from them. And I thought, I'm lying in this hospital bed, and it's just a different way of sitting alone and being alone with the world.
GROSS: Well, Fenton Johnson, I wish you a good recovery and a lot of good health.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
GROSS: And I thank you very much for sharing some of your thoughts with us.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
GROSS: Fenton Johnson wrote the cover story about solitude in the April edition of Harper's. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review two memoirs about grief and loss. We'll hear about how dirty, smelly and kind of disgusting the streets, the air and the river were in Victorian London. And linguist Geoff Nunberg will call out one Wikipedia editor for his war against one phrase. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Two new memoirs by women coping with upheavals in their lives take us deep into the domestic solace of dogs, friends and family and out into the wild with birds of prey. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Loss is the rough tie that binds two memoirs that otherwise are as different as day and night. "What Comes Next And How To Like It" is a sequel of sorts to Abigail Thomas's best-selling 2006 memoir, "A Three Dog Life," which chronicled the one-two punch death of her husband, by her account a sweetheart of a guy who took their dog out for a walk one afternoon in New York and was hit by a car. He suffered brain injuries and lingered for five years. Even after that catastrophe, more losses now loom for Thomas. A long-time friend sexually betrays her. An adult daughter is diagnosed with cancer. A beloved dog dies. And the aging process, that drabbest of thieves, robs the 70-something Thomas of beauty and energy. At this point, readers may well wonder about the promise implicit in Thomas's catchy title. What comes next is pretty inevitable, but how to like it isn't so clear.
The upside here is Thomas's writing style. Her mature bones may no longer be all that flexible, but her topics and sentences flip and cartwheel with the greatest of ease. In chapters sometimes only a paragraph long, Thomas leaps from the existential horror of a late-night realization that her house and furniture will outlast her to the private hilarity of a gynecological exam in which she waxes nostalgic over the sexually transmitted diseases of her swinging '60s youth. She sometimes pauses in midflight to consider the lifelong bafflement of dating. When Thomas tells a poet she's sleeping with that she's in it for the pleasure, he responds that he's in it for the pain, a line only the young could love. Toward the end of her memoir, Thomas describes a writing workshop she teaches for people living with cancer. She says the ultimate takeaway of that workshop is that if it isn't life and death, it isn't life and death, a mantra worth memorizing. If, as a memoirist, Abigail Thomas is the wry, resilient friend marked by tragedy, Helen Macdonald is something other. To read her memoir, "H Is For Hawk," is to feel as though Emily Bronte just turned up at your door, trailing all the windy, feral outdoors into your living room. Macdonald's memoir, "H Is For Hawk," became a number one best seller when it was published in Great Britain last year. And it's become such a hit here, the hardcover's currently difficult to find. Macdonald is a naturalist and a scholar of the history of science. When her father, a photographer, suddenly died, she spun downward into grief. Memories of him, she tells us, are like heavy blocks of glass. Desperate for a way to cope, Macdonald, who'd been a falconer since she was a child, immerses herself in training a goshawk, a bird of prey Macdonald describes as a thing of death and difficulty. For guidance, she turns to an old book, "The Goshawk," written by T. H. White, the odd man who gave us the Arthurian tales "The Sword In The Stone" and "The Once And Future King" that inspired, among other things, the play "Camelot." As strange as all this sounds, Macdonald's voice and worldview is even stranger, not in a self-consciously clever way, but with the authority of someone who sees the world's slant. Here, for instance, is a passage where she explains the deeper motivations for training her hawk, which she names Mabel.
(Reading) Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be - solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk. The first few days with a wild new hawk are a delicate, reflexive dance of manners. To judge when to scratch your nose without offense, when to walk and when to sit, you must read your hawk's state of mind. I had put myself in the hawk's wild mind to tame her. And as the days passed in the darkened room, my humanity was burning away.
"H Is For Hawk" is a wonder, both of nature and of meditative writing. The flat truism that we all handle grief and loss in our different ways has never been given such raw and fierce form.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "What Comes Next And How To Like It" by Abigail Thomas, along with "H Is For Hawk" by Helen Macdonald. Coming up, hold your nose. It's an interview about how smelly and filthy Victorian London was. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. In the 19th century, London was the capital of the largest empire the world had ever known. It was also infamously filthy. Its residents choked on soot-drenched fog, traveled down streets covered with muddy horse excrement and drank water from the Thames River, which was thick with human sewage. Just how dirty the city was and how its citizens attempted to deal with it is the subject of the entertaining and sometimes disgusting new book "Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth," by Lee Jackson. Jackson has written several nonfiction and fiction books about Victorian London. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Lee Jackson, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's hard for us to imagine just how filthy the city of London was in the Victorian era. What would it be like just walking through the streets? What would you be stepping in? What would you be smelling? What was it like?
LEE JACKSON: Yes, well, I think stepping in it is definitely the point. I mean, the first thing you'd notice if you stepped out onto the streets would be the mud. The mud that lined the carriageways it were. But of course it wasn't really mud - mud was something of a euphemism. It was essentially composed of horse dung. There were tens of thousands of working horses in London and with the inevitable consequences for the streets. And the Victorians never really found a really effective way of removing that unfortunately. The air itself was generally filled with soot and smoke. It was - I think it was famously said of the sheep in Regent's Park - there will still grazing sheep in Regent's Park in the Mid-Victorian period - that you could tell how long they'd been in the capital by how dirty their coats were. They'd gotten increasingly - from whites to black over a period of days. And, you know, if you're a respectable person you had to wash your face and had several times during the day to make sure that you looked half decent. So you had the sort of the mud on the streets, you had the fog and the smoke in the air, you had the stench probably from blocked drains and cesspools below houses. It wasn't really a pleasant experience.
BRIGER: Well, you write in the 1890s that there were about 300,000 horses in the streets and producing a thousand tons of dung a day?
JACKSON: Yes, I mean, and - you know, imagine the sheer amount of labor that would be needed to collect that. The City of London came up with a scheme of using basically boys - boys age 12 to 14 whose job - they were called street orderlies and their job was to dart between the traffic and try and scoop it up as soon as this stuff hit the street as it were. But it was an immense and impossible challenge. And urine of course from the horses was also another problem - it soaked the streets. There was an experiment in I think Piccadilly with wood paving in the mid-century. And it was abandoned after a few weeks because the sheer smell of ammonia that was coming from the pavement was just impossible. And also the shopkeepers near by said that this ammonia was actually discoloring their brass shop fronts as well.
BRIGER: So you write that cesspools weren't outlawed in London until 1855. What were the cesspools like in the city?
JACKSON: Well, this is the thing that's often forgotten - that yeah, you know, London in the start of the 19th century - it was basically filled with these cesspools. There'd be brick chambers, there would be a - maybe about 6 feet deep 4 foot wide - and every house would have one. They would be ideally in the back garden away from the house. But equally in central London and more crowded areas it was quite common to have a cesspool in the basement - below the house. And this - you know, above the cesspool would be where your household privy would be. And that was basically your sanitary facilities for lack of a better term. And that actually worked quite well for little while. But then people got very interested in this new invention - the water closet. And it's often ignored that actually the water closets were initially connected to these cesspools - not the sewer system that existed in the start of the century - that was just for rain water. So you get water closets coming in - they're connected to cesspools and they don't really fit because of the extra large volume of the flushing water. You get these sort of surges of waste and dump and smell. And people start getting very concerned about what's in their cesspools 'cause the sort of stink that's rising from them in the back gardens and in their houses - the idea that this sort of stench is coming into the house - seeping through the house and possibly bringing in diseases like say cholera or typhoid into your home, into your family is actually one of the great sort of driving forces of sanitary reform in the 19th century.
BRIGER: Who were the night soil men and what was their job?
JACKSON: Well, yes - so you're quite right. You know, the cesspool would be in your back garden, it would be under your house but eventually the waste had to be removed. Now, actually cesspools were built to be porous so the liquid part of the waste was meant to just seep away into the ground. There was no knowledge of bacteriological contamination although there was plenty of it happening. Nevertheless, you have this residue of solid matter left at the end. And it was removed by so-called night soil men. This wasn't actually a sort of full-time job for people. They were often dustmen or laborers or brick layers who made a little extra money on the side. And they would come in the middle of the night to your home - and it was by law in the night because the stench venting a cesspool was considered too disturbing during the day. And they would unfortunately have to clumber down into this pit and shovel out the muck - get it into a wicker basket, get it into a cart - and at the start of century, that was actually reasonably productive labor because the cart could then be taken out to the countryside and the maneuver could be sold to farmers. So there was actually some profit in selling things on as well.
BRIGER: You say that the night soil men would take the muck out and then bring it to their yard and just let it dry there which must have just created an awful stench for their neighbors.
JACKSON: (Laughter). Yes, I mean, the - you know, there's these sort of complaints and, you know, sometimes at the start of the century - London is still relatively small, you know, it' only - it's only really 3-4 miles across basically. And these night soil men and the people who managed - their yards would be actually, you know, really - often just in like a back street adjoining some very respectable houses. And if you look at the sort of parish records of the early 19th century, people, you know, complaining that their neighbor is, you know, literally got this mountain of human excrement building up in their backyard which they are planning to sell on, you know. So yes, it was horrible and there was no easy way of dealing with it. So, I mean, you just complain to your local vestry, your local parish authority and hope they could persuade the person in question do something about it.
BRIGER: You say that the Victorians created public toilets. How big was that a need at the time?
JACKSON: Well, you know, the Victorians were very keen on public health. What they called sanitary science, you know, trying to eradicate disease and dirt from London. And they introduced a massive sewage system in the midcentury. And you think as part of that you might provide some kind of facilities for the general public who had, you know, the need to use the toilet. And yet it was a strain long saga basically. It's often said that the first public toilets were at The Great Exhibition which was this sort of, you know, the first world expo as it were held in Hyde Park - it had 6 million visitors in a matter of months and there were indeed public toilets set up within the exhibition. But there was a great debate after that closed as to whether London needed such facilities actually on the street. And it was tied up with notions of sort of shame and respectability. It is particularly said that women would just be too embarrassed to enter a public toilet in the public street. This whole thing went on for basically decades arguing about whether the capital should have such facilities.
BRIGER: Right, so before the Victorians got over their prudishness about female anatomy - what options were available for women?
JACKSON: Well, for women - well, the options were very limited. If you were a very well-to-do person - if you had your own coach you could draw the blinds and use - if you're a lady - use something called a borderloo, which is basically a sort of an elongated sort of gravy boat. This was basically something that, you know, if you were a very respectable person you could have this just tucked under the seat in your coach and if you're absolutely desperate you could do that. The middle class is more expected to go into shops. And they, you know, the idea was that if you knew a confectioner shop or maybe your milliners you would just have a quiet word with the servant and say, well, can I use your facilities, you know? But for the average person - for someone of the working class who was moving about the city - there really was nowhere to go. And the idea was that basically you either didn't, you know, you just sort of restrained yourself or, you know, the back alleys of London were fairly filthy anyway. And if you lived in the slums, often the sort of - the toilet facilities that were provided were basically nonexistent or entirely blocked. So it wasn't unusual for sellers or back streets just to be used as sort of ad hoc toilets unfortunately.
BRIGER: That's right, you say that the men had very little compunction about using the alleyways as urinals and you described this thing - I think you coin it as a urine deflector. What was that?
JACKSON: Well, it's a great invention. I was reading a very obscure early 19th century journal and it mentioned how hostile London is to the tourist and to the visitor. And it said that even to the extent that there were - I think the phrase he used was barricardos,(ph) you know, as in barricades against relieving yourself in the street. And I wondered what that meant - I didn't take much notice of it but in researching the book, I found another source which basically said the same sort of thing - that there were sort of grooved and angled bits of metal that would prevent you urinating. I thought, what? I don't quite understand what this is about. And believe it or not, about a week after I read that I just happened to walk through an alleyway off Fleet Street - Clifford's Inn Passage - it's a very old part of London. And I've been there a thousand times before - I used to work around there. And along the wall were a set - of about 45 degrees to the wall - were these iron strips with grooves running down them about two or three feet off the ground. I looked and I realized this is it. This is exactly what they'd been talking about. And they were there to prevent people urinating against your wall if you had a business or a shop and you didn't want members of the public nipping into the alley around the side. You would put this groove against your wall - this sort of sloping thing against the wall and of course if someone was to relieve themselves there, the slope meant that the urine fell straight into their shoes. And apparently these were all over London. And there's just this one set left on Fleet Street.
BRIGER: So we spent a lot of the time today talking about just how dirty London was. But how did it get so awful, I mean, is it just a case of the city growing beyond its means of controlling itself?
JACKSON: I think there's a great quote, I think, towards the end of the century. Someone says that basic London has sort of a village organization still even by the end of the 19th century. And certainly at the start, the local government of London is parochial in the sort of literal or metaphorical sense, you know? It really is parishes with their local clergymen and a couple of, you know, the sort of worthy businessmen and, you know, so forth who were actually running things at a very localized level and these sort of tiny Balkanized parts of London. There are even some landowners who obtain a sort of special acts which would allow them to run particular streets or squares as separate government entities. And so London is made up of this patchwork of tiny authorities. And that perhaps works okay in the Georgian period when it's relatively - still a relatively small city. But yes, as it grows - massive immigration from the provinces from Ireland. These sort of small bodies just can't cope with the sheer scale of the challenge - just the sheer amount of dirt and the sheer amount of rubbish that has to be moved. You know, rubbish is a great sort of logistical problem as well as sort of a public health problem. And it just becomes too much of a challenge for them and the problem is as well the Victorians were great believers in what we would now call small government. They didn't believe in centralization - there was great hostility to national government coming in telling Londoners what to do. And the irony of setting up even some kind of municipal London authority was immensely politically contentious. And this really set back any sort of - any hope of cleaning London for much of the 19th century.
BRIGER: How did things actually get better in London? I mean, we talked a lot about how filthy it was - I mean, I think London today is not the same city. How did things improve?
JACKSON: Well, I mean, you know, the Victorians did achieve something. They built this - the famous, great sewer network of the mid-19th century built by Joseph Bazalgette - now sort of renowned civil engineer, you know? And that did achieve a lot. It basically took away the possibility of wholesale cholera epidemics in the city. Typhus and typhoid - they all were reduced. And basically it's only until the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century that you get a sort of an effective central authority for London that you actually start to see change. London County Council is set up in 1889. And it takes decades for people to accept that the state perhaps has a role in, you know, how they manage their household, how they manage their rubbish, you know, their toilet facilities even, you know? But the state basically does intervene. And it is - that's the idea of, you know, sort of central authority that is actively concerned, what the Victorians would've called inessential municipal socialism. And that was sort of almost politically unacceptable at the start of the 19th century, but by the end, it was seen as just absolutely necessary. And that sort of mission to improve people's lives in a very sort of day-to-day basis was carried on basically throughout the 20th century.
BRIGER: Lee Jackson, thank you very much.
JACKSON: Thank you.
GROSS: Lee Jackson is the author of "Dirty Old London." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. You can read an excerpt of "Dirty Old London" on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers one Wikipedia editor's war against the use of one phrase. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. A lot of us have pet peeves about language, but we usually just grumble about them. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg tells us about one Wikipedia editor who has decided to do something about his. He spent the last eight years eliminating the phrase, comprised of, from thousands of Wikipedia entries.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: I think of English usage as one of those subjects like cocktails or the British royal family. A lot of people take a passing interest in it, but you never know who's going to turn out to be a true believer, the kind of person who complains about the grammar errors on restaurant menus. Waiter, there's a split infinitive in my soup. For single-minded devotion to grammatical rectitude, you'd be hard-pressed to match a Wikipedia editor named Bryan Henderson, who goes by the username of Giraffedata. He was the subject of a piece by Andrew McMillan in the long-form site Medium that provoked a lot of debate. Giraffedata has a single bee in his bonnet - the phrase comprised of. He has written a 6,000-word essay on his Wikipedia user page explaining why he thinks it's an egregious error. And to drive home his point, he's made 47,000 edits over the last eight years, most of them aimed at purging the phrase wherever it occurs on the Wikipedia site. And to drive home his point he has made 47,000 edits over the last eight years most of them aimed at hurting the phrase wherever it occurs on the Wikipedia site. He doesn't show it any mercy even when it appears in a quotation - in his view, it's a kindness to writers not to quote their mistakes. Now, if you're like me and don't see anything wrong with the sentence the book is comprised of three chapters, you can rest assured that we're in good company. The phrase comprised of goes back 300 years. It turns up in Anthony Trollope, in Christopher Hitchens and Norman Mailer, in the essays of Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom. Merriam-Webster's OK with it, and so are more than two-thirds of the eminent writers and editors on the American Heritage usage panel, who aren't generally a very loosey-goosey crowd. But that respectable pedigree hasn't deterred some modern usage commentators who have decided that comprised of is illogical. That's the argument Giraffedata has picked up on. As the theory goes, the book is comprised of three chapters can't mean the same thing as the book comprises three chapters. Comprised of is a passive form of the verb, they say, which reverses the role of the subject and object. On their view, saying the book is comprised of three chapters is like saying it's contained of three chapters or it's consisted of three chapters. It shouldn't make any sense at all.
If I can get a little down and dweeby myself, I don't personally find that argument very persuasive. Whatever Mrs. Plotkin told us in ninth grade, comprised of isn't really a passive. It's one of a bunch of curious adjective phrases like descended from, avenged of and possessed of. She's possessed of a mischievous spirit - that doesn't mean the spirit possesses her. The English language usually knows what it's doing, even if it doesn't always seem as tidy as we'd like it to be.
But right or wrong, the idea that comprised of is illogical has become one of those nuggets of English word-lore that are just obscure enough so that people can take personal ownership of them - not pet peeves, exactly, but proprietary ones. It gives you the gratifying feeling of being alert to an error that has escaped the notice of other English speakers since the age when Jonathan Swift was walking the earth.
Well, we all have our little fetishes. What makes Giraffedata remarkable is that he's acted his out on such a wide canvas. He's not just engaging in sporadic acts of resistance, like the people who scratch out misplaced apostrophes on the signs over the vegetable bins at Piggly Wiggly. He's waging total jihad against comprised of across 5 million English language Wikipedia articles. And he's vowed not to stop until he's driven it into the sea.
But it's striking that Giraffedata has been able to bring this off in the collaborative environment of Wikipedia. After all, what one Wikipedian can delete, another Wikipedian can restore. That's what's supposed to keep the whole enterprise from going off the rails. But even the editors who disagree with him about comprised of are evidently resigned to letting him have his way. Nobody's about to be as zealous about hanging on to the phrase as Giraffedata is about getting rid of it. And after all, it's not as if eliminating it does any real harm.
But it does show how the Wikipedia system sometimes puts it at the mercy of the dogged true believers. Not when it comes to the serious stuff - 9/11 truthers and anti-vaccinationists don't get very far. But you can pretty much have the run of the place if you dedicate yourself to some crotchet that nobody cares about remotely as much as you do. And for those purposes, the obscure quirks of English grammar are ideal.
This isn't just about Wikipedia. Giraffedata's jihad is only an exaggerated example of what I think of as the pedant's veto. It doesn't matter if you consider a word to be correct English. If some sticklers insist that it's an error, the dictionaries and style manuals are going to counsel you to steer clear of it to avoid criticism. That can be the prudent course, especially in an age when email and Web comment threads make things easy for what William Safire used to call the gotcha gang. It's annoying to have to pass over a perfectly good word just because somebody has a bone to pick with it, but who wants to start with these people? But understand this, every time we avoid saying comprised of, the pedants win.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information.
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