When I was small I was often accosted by lavender-sellers in Romford on a Saturday morning. I remember feeling singled out when an old lady with a touch of the Mystic Megs about her gave me a sprig wrapped up in tin foil. I thought it was a present until she started shouting at me outside Debenhams. Her hollering was full-voiced, but not as mellifluous as this lavender-seller, recorded in 1938:
The recording is a good example of the treasures that a rootle around on the London Sound Survey website can turn up. Rootling means ‘digging with the snout’ according to the dictionary, and I have been doing a lot of the aural version lately… ear-rootling for rare pieces of archive like this for the Radio 4 series. The London Sound Survey is where Ian Rawes – a curator at the British Library Sound Archive – lives and thinks on the web in his spare time…. and it is to the ear-rootler what truffles are to snuffling snouts. Ian created the site as a place to showcase recordings of places, events and wildlife in London. It is crackily, intimate and full of small delights.
I love the patter of a fortune teller recorded on Hampstead Heath in 1939 (“you ought to be wearing a ring to a gentlem’n tall like yerself”)… but my favourite is this clip of three sewer cleaners or ‘flushers’ singing as they work beneath the New Kent Road in July 1947. (Don’t give up early – they take thirty seconds or so to get going, but oh… once they do).
Kurt Vonnegut’s first rule of writing was ‘pick a subject you care about so deeply you’d speak on a soapbox about it’. If someone gives me a soapbox I will stand up and holler about singing flushers (and the London Sound Survey).
(The recording of the lavender-seller is not covered by Creative Commons so please don’t try to download or redistribute it.)