The fight against entropy

It all begins with a hard line against Eucryl Tooth Powder.

I suppose it all started when I learned about the Second Law of Thermodynamics at school. There you are, bumbling along in your safe little world, blandly assured that things will go on getting better, that everything will become more prosperous and ordered, and then – wham! – you see that simple little equation, Δ > 0, absorb the implications of the fact that heat cannot pass from a colder to a warmer body, and not only do you understand that eventually the universe will die in a uniform chill of something not much cosier than absolute zero, or something roughly around -700°C, but you also understand how hard it is to keep your room tidy.
 
Since then, I have fought only the most desperate rearguard actions against entropy. “You can’t fart against thunder,” as my Great-Uncle Cecil used to say, when faced with a superior hand at poker – and things don’t come much more thunderous than the heat-death of the universe.
 
Women, though, in my experience, do not see it this way. And in case you think that’s sexist, I should add that most men don’t see it my way, either. Men, though, are more slobby; there are women who are messier than me but they are so spectacularly messy that they get featured on television. The key words here are “in my experience”, and last week, after a few months of Putting Up With Things, the Beloved decided to take a rare day off work, roll her sleeves up and get cracking against the entropy. So that I can help her with this, instead of just lying in bed deeply sensing the futility of all human endeavour to a slightly more intense pitch than I did yesterday, she invents a game called “Keep or Chuck?”, complete with theme tune. The game – and it really is quite clever of her to realise that to get me to help, a game must be made of it; no one else has worked that out before – is played to a strict time limit of ten minutes at a stretch, and the object is to make as many decisions about what to keep or chuck within that time. No overt reward is given for chucking as opposed to keeping something but a little something in the games master’s demeanour suggests that chucking manky redundant things will be rewarded later and keeping manky redundant things will not be so much.
 
So: title music, please. And, bearing in mind I have been living in the Hovel for only six years . . . bathroom cabinet first. Nyrelex for Chesty Coughs (expiry date, 1998): chuck. Night Nurse (now virtually crystallised, best before 1997): chuck. Peppermint foot lotion “of the most extraordinary consistency”: chuck. Brush-on facial hair remover: chuck. Haemorrhoid cream (b b 2004): chuck. Clarins Honey-Tinted Moisturiser (no best before date, but only the letters “ARIN” of “Clarins” remain visible): chuck. Rinstead sugar-free pastilles (b b 2005): chuck. “Soothing and cooling” moist haemorrhoid tissues (b b 2004): chuck. (I begin to sense a pattern here and feel a pang of pity for whoever lived here before me.) Eucryl Tooth Powder – or, as the Beloved calls it, “Eucryl Tooth Powder???? What the fuck’s that???” – keep: I bought it myself. I then have to explain it. Explaining Eucryl Tooth Powder to pretty much anyone under 50 is harder than you might think. Mitchum roll-on deodorant (“so strong you can even skip a day”): keep – the name and slogan are hilarious. No, on second thoughts, chuck. It pre-dates me. (Later inspection shows that it has actually been kept.) Ibis Mosquito Re-Impregnation Kit (no date): keep. Unless climate change gallops along even faster than in the most pessimistic scientist’s nightmares, I won’t be needing this in the Hovel, but how cool is a re-impregnation kit? Even cooler than an impregnation kit, surely.
 
And so on. In the ten minutes allotted to “Keep or Chuck?”, the Beloved has managed to show me an enormous array of redundant products which, despite having been kept in a cabinet for years, have not so much accrued a layer of dust as actually grown beards; and I wonder, not for the first time, what kink it is in my psyche that prevents me, or people like me, from performing this perfectly simple and reasonable act. It is possible that the childhood loss of a loved family member made me reluctant to throw things away, that it’s a reaction against rejection, death being the greatest rejection of all; but then again I know people with similar events in their backgrounds and they’re not untidy at all. Search me. Or not. You don’t know what you’ll find.
Sorting through entropy is notoriously difficult. Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.