Saturday, 23 August 2008

Olde London in 1665

We know that London experienced the Black Bubonic Plague in 1665, long before Sydney did. I wrote this short piece during my creative writing degree course, and I can't help thinking that this indeed would have been my reaction to the conditions in London at the time.

Fragrances of the hedgerows and flowers of the field evaporated as I passed through the gates of this walled town and into the crush of humanity. Here more pungent odours assailed my senses.

The stabbing sourness of vinegar fought with fetid gases from the tannery, and the hides swinging on their racks. In contradiction, a burgher with powdered wig and stockings passed by, leaving behind him a whiff of pomander. But this sweet perfume was soon captured by the reek of excrement and slops, lying in a nearby drain.

Followed then the stink of pails of blood and entrails left in the heat outside a butcher’s door, and the undisguised body odours of a hundred people sweating in the midday sun. These vapours and others merged to become a nauseous and pervading presence.

I turned into a side street, and all which had come before was overtaken. Here a stench of evil violated the air, a stench rotten and forbidding. I knew its source, for a man lay there in his own vomit in the gutter, afire with a hellish fever and gasping for air. I could see a swelling the size of a chicken’s egg on his neck. My own stomach heaved as his smell saturated my being, overwhelming my soul with terror.

I left him, just as fast as I could.

© June Saville 2008. Not to be reproduced without express written permission of the author.

I wasn't the first to wonder in writing at the smell of the Plague. This is an excerpt of
Samuel Pepys Diary of the time:

June 7 1665 - This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell to and chaw, which took away the apprehension.

Samuel Pepys

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Cheers June