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Strange Inspiration

On hidden depths


One of the joys of nonfiction writing, I’ve found, is that inspiration can come from the most unexpected places. While researching a nonfiction piece I’ll sometimes stumble upon an element that brings the whole project together. A catalyst. It could be an object or location or document: anything that triggers my imagination and suggests a shape or a structure for the subject, that points the way out of the research and into the writing, offering a tantalising glimpse of what the finished piece might look like. Suddenly everything snaps into place.

I can clearly recall one such moment. It was not long after I had begun work on a handful of essays that would eventually form the backbone of my first book, a travelogue about my home city of Dublin. I was sitting in a library when I opened an official report into sewage treatment. Strange as it sounds, I had been thinking about sewage for several months. But I had no clear vision of what a nonfiction piece about the subject would look like until opening that report.

I had come across sewage as a subject worthy of research while working on something else: a piece about the river Poddle. The river runs under Dublin’s south city, and had, over the centuries, been redirected to provide power for mills and the city’s water supply. The various branches lay beneath the streets of the Liberties area. The archaeologist Franc Myles, who showed me around, mentioned that the underground rivers also functioned as an overflow for the city’s sewer system.

With that detail, the underground river piece bifurcated. There was another story beneath the streets – about the sewer system – that I would need to tell in a separate essay, and I sensed that it would demand a different approach. I went home and made some notes. I wondered about the history of the city’s sewage and who I could talk to about it; I searched online for books that might shed some light on the subject.

Soon, I was living in Paris. I spent my days in the basement of the Bibliothèque Nationale writing the Poddle article before turning my attention to sewage once more. I had a folder of sewage-related material on my laptop, and, one day, sitting at my desk in the research level of the library, I opened the PDF document that would shape what I would write next.

It was March 2012, and the report – to give it its full title: Focus on Urban Waste Water Discharges in Ireland – had just been published by the Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland. It examined the quality of sewage treatment in the country – whether good, bad or non-existent – and gave some legislative background that was a useful starting point for what I wanted to achieve: a narrative exploration of the subject. While many readers might have seen it as a dry, functional report filled with graphs and bullet-pointed lists – one for the wastewater specialists rather than mainstream consumption – I was fascinated by the light it shed on this largely subterranean, hidden world.

I was particularly interested in one page: a map of the Republic of Ireland on which were dotted green triangles and circles and black squares, representing different levels of sewage treatment. I was drawn to the black squares, which indicated locations where untreated sewage was discharged into watercourses. A couple of these locations were near Dublin city, and I decided to visit at least one of them.

I had begun to think about how I might write a nonfiction piece in vivid scenes; how they could be used to anchor and explain a wider subject. When I read the EPA report, the map of locations at which sewage was released into natural watercourses acted as a trigger. I pictured a series of scenes that I imagined might make the piece concrete, that might dramatize my quest.

In the months since I had walked around the streets of Dublin thinking about underground rivers, I had been considering how to approach sewage. I was a novice nonfiction writer, looking for inspiration wherever I could find it. I read books about the craft, and in one found the example of a piece of reportage that traced the journey of a French fry to a fast-food restaurant — from the field to the processing plant to the kitchen to the paper bag in which it would be served to a customer.

I wondered if I could use a similar approach to trace the journey of Dublin’s sewage. I sketched out the path taken by the waste flushed from a domestic bathroom: into the pipes on the street, then to larger trunk sewers, then perhaps through a pumping station that countered the effects of gravity, and then on to the processing plant. For planning purposes, I pictured this trajectory from sink to sea, from toilet to outfall pipe, as linear — a washing line on which scenes could be hung in sequential order.

Within a few days of reading the EPA report, I had compiled a page of questions. How did people dispose of their sewage before the introduction of sewerage systems? How much time does the waste one flushes take to reach the processing plant? ‘People don’t really want to know where it goes’, I noted, but ploughed on regardless. I wanted to know, and that was enough for now. Those questions led to me drawing up a list of scenes that could be woven into the narrative: I would find a sewage pipe that pumped raw sewage into the sea; I would visit a sewage processing plant.

And my preliminary research had unearthed a couple of new elements that, I thought, could be turned into scenes in some way. Firstly, sewage solids were dried and processed at Dublin’s main sewage plant, then driven away in trucks for use as agricultural fertiliser. Secondly, Dublin needed a new sewage plant as the current one was at capacity. I would also fold in explanatory sections about the history of sewage, drawing on sources that included Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which contains a sewage-related digression.

I learned that one of the stipulations of the application of sewage sludge as fertiliser was that a register of where it was used had to be kept at Dublin City Council’s offices. I planned to visit and make a scene of it. One proposed location for the outfall pipe, near a small fishing village on the coast of north county Dublin, seemed to warrant further attention. It was clear that many locals were against the plan; they referred to it as a ‘monster’ that was being imposed on them. When I stepped back to consider it, the proposed plant symbolised the latest expansion of Dublin’s urban area into its rural hinterland.

The latter was a theme that I was beginning to warm to. It fitted with an autobiographical piece I had already written about growing up in the 1970s suburban sprawl of the city. I was starting to see that a long-form article about sewage was also, more broadly, about the city and its limits, and about the people who lived at and beyond the urban edge, their struggles and victories.

By the end of the month, I had written a detailed pitch for the sewage article: four pages of solid research that sketched the narrative potential of the piece and outlined the scenes as I envisaged them. While sitting in the basement research rooms in the library in Paris I was intensely imagining Dublin. I was looking for a logic to apply to my hometown, or, perhaps, a way of seeing that would open it up as a subject that I could write about. The sewers gave me that: an essential part of the city that most people don’t consider. I began to think about the hidden aspects of city life, the ones taken for granted: the suburbs, public transport, or the strange ghost estates that haunted the edges of the post-crash city.

These subjects opened up to me once the sewage piece was underway. As I worked on it, I was developing a vision and a methodology that would see me through the writing of my first book, Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin. I cycled around the city, or caught buses or trams, writing about the everyday life of the place, interviewing people, taking research trips, all the time compiling scenes that I could arrange in my writing. As I went, I considered how I might explain the subjects I was investigating, and thinking about how best to make them come alive, to make them into a narrative, and, ultimately, a book that people could hold in their hands.

Now, whenever I consider the book, I think that it wouldn’t have been the same, and perhaps wouldn’t even exist, without the unexpected inspiration I drew from that sewage report.

Karl Whitney is the author of Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin (2014) and Hit Factories: A Journey Through the Industrial Cities of British Pop (2019). His journalism often appears in the Guardian, Irish Times and London Review of Books.

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