Shit happens – that’s true in sewerage and it’s true in life.
Maureen Street is passionate about sewerage: she’s bringing that enthusiasm to her illustrated lecture The Magic that Happens Underground.
The ‘magic’ of her title is the daily disappearance of our waste products; a disappearance most of us take for granted, but which Maureen doesn’t.
Maureen wants to tell us the whole story from WC pan to sewerage outfall. She’s written a script and put together the slides. She’s shot some video and she’s even built some models which will let her demonstrate siphonic action on stage.
But as Maureen delivers her lecture she finds it increasingly difficult to stick to the script: the events of her life keep breaking through, unexpectedly triggered by her subject matter. Without intending to, Maureen discusses her marriage, separation and divorce; her faltering career – redundancy has hit her hard; her relationship with her children and her own childhood.
Yet every digression brings her back to her theme, and by the time the journey ends at the outfall Maureen has learned as much about herself as the audience has about sewerage.
I don’t see how anyone can’t be interested in sewerage.
The seed for the subject of sewerage came from a Horrid Henry audio tape: in the story Henry is on a school trip to the town museum where he finds the most boring exhibit imaginable: ‘the story of the drain’.
The first thing that struck me was that the story of the drain is in fact an interesting one. I have a long-standing interest in buildings and how they and their associated utilities work (over ten years ago I bought a second-hand book about sewage treatment systems which has plenty of illustrations of Edwardian sewage treatment machinery). And coupled with that, a long-standing appreciation of the historical development of such systems from the third millennium BC drains at Mohenjo-daro to the Victorian interceptor sewers of London, designed by Joseph Bazalgette.
I asked myself whether it would be possible to make that allegedly boring subject interesting for an audience? I felt that with the right treatment it could be. Of course, it presents opportunities for scatological humour, but also it has great scope for metaphorical use. Which brings me to the second strand: life.
By the time you’ve got to middle age (which is where I firmly sit) there’s been a lot of life, some of it good, some of it bad. But one of the main things is the sense that wherever you end up, it probably wasn’t where you aimed for in your youth. A job you thought you would do for decades disappears, a relationship you had promised would last until death withers and dies. An opportunity you never expected suddenly pops up.
Twisting those two strands together gives the Magic that Happens Underground.
Recent estimates suggest that every day each adult expels about 4.5 grams of faeces for every kilogram of body mass … which means the population of Newcastle upon Tyne products 33,275 tonnes of faeces each year.
The lecture format which forms the spine of the piece is drawn from another side of my life, in which I, and others, deliver lectures and training sessions on technical subjects. The best examples manage to connect the technical information with the implications for how we live.
The use of the lecture gives us two contrasting voices: the considered script – buttoned down and ordered – and Maureen’s thoughts as she breaks away from the script. It also allows practical demonstrations which increase interaction with the audience.
People would ask me at parties ‘what do you do, Maureen.’ And I’d say ‘I work in sewerage.’ Their eyes would drift down to my hands, as if they they thought I spent my days shovelling the stuff and they might be contaminated.
At the start of the piece Maureen has a lot of unresolved issues: things have happened to her which she hasn’t properly processed. She has a journey to go on; a quest into dark places, illuminated not by Campbell’s Hero’s Journey but Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief.
The Magic that happens underground is a one-woman show with a planned running time of 55 minutes. Currently in preparation.