The Metropolis

Sketch: Dr Richard Barnett's Sick City Project for @wellcometrust. Death in a thousand steps

Mike Pollitt | Wednesday 22 August, 2012 12:14

Richard Barnett's sick city walks

Dr Richard Barnett, as poised and as charming an academic as ever donned a shabby brown jacket, pauses in a side street off the Strand, hangs his sunglasses on the front of his shirt, and begins a tale of blood, booze and screaming agony.

“…he gave Pepys a bottle of brandy to drink, partly to numb the pain and partly to make him insensible and tractable. He tied him to a table naked and face up, and inserted a long metal rod through his penis and into his bladder…”

The he in Barnett’s sentence is not, as more adventurous readers might suppose, a 17th century bdsm master with a taste for urethral play. Pepys was nobody’s bitch. The he was a surgeon who was permitted to insert his rod into Pepys’ penis, and his pliers into Pepys’ perineum, in order to remove an “exquisitely painful” bladder stone.

The Wellcome Collection possess an image which nicely illustrates Dr Barnett’s account. It includes a hidden bonus game of spot the ball(s).

“Exquisitely painful” is Dr Barnett’s phrase, and he relishes delivering it during a two-hour guided walk around Holborn and up to St Pauls, in the area the branders would like me to call Midtown. Well I’ll brand them first. Unlike the branders, the Doc has a nice line in euphonic phrases: the “tender mercies of the surgeons”, the “thrill-seeking demi-monde”. Add the fact that London is as full of medical history as pustule is of pus, and this attempt to engage the people with the sick and the dead of London’s past can hardly fail.

The Doctor is a tallish man with more tan on his shoes than on his skin. On a hot day in late July, at a temperature which would have had the flies flitting round Pepys wounds and sweat flowing freely down the surgeon’s brow, he is coolness itself, alternating black-rimmed glasses with a snazzy pair of shades which, when not in use, hang with fashionable abandon from the front of his shirt. As the eyewear alternates, he turns from bespectacled academic to suave Riviera gent in the flick of a wrist. After the transformation, only the sheaf of well-thumbed papers hanging scruffily out of his back pocket give away his true calling – this is an academic alright.

Dr Barnett possesses the timeless English affability which is rarely found these days outside universities, the theatre, and the upper reaches of the medical profession. Indeed he started out wanting to be a pathologist, and studied medicine for two years before switching to history with a medical slant. He has taught at Cambridge and at UCL, has a book called Medical London – City of Diseases, City of Cures and his walks round the city are now conducted under the aegis of the Wellcome Trust. For them he leads the Sick City Project, a bloody interrogation of death, gore and human decay.

The walks can be enjoyed with the man himself, or navigated yourself via a smartphone, a pair of headphones and the fascinating website, where recordings of his fine phraseology, along with maps of the walk routes, are intuitively arranged.

It’s good stuff. Give the pustule a squeeze. You know you want to.

Here’s a podcast Dr Barnett did to go with the Florence Nightingale Museum’s current Bone exhibition.

Here’s where you can find all the walks for you to listen to on your phone/iPad/computer whatever. Just use the maps to find the right spot, press play and have it piped directly into your brain.

Here’s the blogsite which ties all the Sick City strands together.

Here’s an interview which the wondrously completist Londonist did with Dr Barnett back in 2008 when his book was out.

And here’s more on Pepys’s urethra.

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Twitter: @Mikpollitt

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