BOOK REVIEWS: Brace Yourself for England's Past, Warts and All; Hubbub, Filth, Noise and Stench in England, by Emily Cockayne, Published by Yale, Pounds 25

The Birmingham Post (England), April 7, 2007 | Go to article overview

BOOK REVIEWS: Brace Yourself for England's Past, Warts and All; Hubbub, Filth, Noise and Stench in England, by Emily Cockayne, Published by Yale, Pounds 25


Byline: Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

The past was a dirty place, populated by ugly, noisy and smelly people whose houses frequently backed onto a dung heap or worse.

From Shakespeare to Smollett via Hogarth, Cockayne writes of the nasty aspects of city life which they would have known of only too well.

We hear, smell, feel and see through this rich prose the reactions to the repulsive and offensive matter of life which so many experienced and frequently died from.

Like the cheek-by-jowl lives it describes, Hubbub reeks of decay, smoke and sweat.

Vivid accounts of the problems which surrounded people in the 18th century remind us of similar things today, such as traffic jams, noisy neighbours, road rage, pollution everywhere and food scares.

But this was a significantly different world from the one we know today - it was pre-electric, pre-technological and pre-antibacterial.

Food hygiene amounted to little more than a spit and a polish, which applied to apples, oranges, and other fruit carted through the streets from door to door.

Bodies were scarred by smallpox and pedestrians picked their way through piles of rotting refuse on filth-strewn streets, thronged with loose pigs and uncontrolled dogs. …

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