Below the surface, the true meaning of the #fatberg lurks…

dan brotzel
Feb 8 · 4 min read

The spectre of the fatberg horrifies and fascinates us. Here’s why

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

You know it, I know it: the fatberg is having a moment. We are entering the age of the fatberg. Peak Fatberg is now. #fatberg is the hot new hashtag. The fatberg is the new black. And in a way this feels like a good thing, if only because it may briefly take pressure off people having to pretend they still care about Game of Thrones, or think up quirky new podcasts to recommend to their friends.

Last year, it was the sinkhole, the year before, it was something else. Today, it is the fatberg. These are the facts.

Yesterday, work begun to remove a ‘monster’ 64-metre-long fatberg which had been clogging up the sewer running under the seafront in the modest Devon, UK, resort of Sidmouth. How much is that in real money? Why, ‘bigger than six double-decker buses’, of course. Also, it is ‘larger than a JUMBO JET’. Thank heavens for standardised tabloid units of measurements — I never could get on with metric.

This is only the latest of many such apparitions, of course — one thinks of the ‘DEADLY’ ‘boulder-sized’ fatbergs invading Britain’s beaches from the Bermuda triangle of 2016, as reported in the Daily Star. The ‘horrifying’ ‘monster’ Whitechapel fatberg that went on display in the Museum of London in 2017. But the current moment feels different, more urgent, more fatberg. The current moment feels like when I am writing this piece, the one about how fatbergs are so now. QED.

Also now-ish, a new public-information video, Invasion of the Fatberg, has been released by JEA, Florida’s largest community-owned electric utility company. It looks like a trailer for a real film, and indeed has higher production values than many a feature-length movie I have sat through with my kids. My guess is that it was made by someone who secretly hopes it will be optioned. It wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t getting the Kermode treatment a few months from now.

#fatberg reached Jeremy Vine on Thursday, and quickly overwhelmed him in its greasy inevitable train. A listener tweeted: ‘Jeremy Vine has said the word “Fatberg” so many times now, it’s lost all meaning!’ When even Jeremy Vine is helpless before the marauding avalanche of congealed oil and grease, then it is time to ask: How did we get here? What does the fatberg really mean? And how many words to go?

Fifteen years ago, researching a travel piece about the underground pleasures of Paris (there’s more to subterranean Paris than the Catacombs, you know) I stood in the capital’s Museum of The Sewer. My French is quite good (this is no time for fausse modestie), but I thought I must have been mistaken when our guide began to describe the enormous balls of emulsified gubbins that were gathering in the channels, so big that they had to be captured and broken up by hand with special sharpened sticks.

The whole thing sounded hopelessly far-fetched, and I assumed I must have lost (or rather gained) a few hundred kilos in translation. I thought nothing more of the incident at the time, but I see now that this was in fact my first encounter with le fatberg. The French have a word for it, of course, but as so often it happens to be our word with a le in front. (That is an actual joke; I am a card-carrying Remoaner.) (Actually they also say ‘iceberg de gras’, but I’m not sure it will catch on.)

The fatberg is a metaphor. Or, as my wife put it, ‘It’s not even a metaphor, it’s what actually happens.’ And I feel bound to say that this is a very strong point, especially as I haven’t told her yet I’m out three nights next week.

If Oscar Wilde were working today, he’d have written The Fatberg of Dorian Gray. (Probably not ‘Dorian’ actually, but work with me.) The fatbergs lurk beneath our streets, accumulating the hidden but very real effects of our over-consumption — the non-disposable stuff we shouldn’t flush, the crap we shouldn’t eat. Just as cholesterol clogs our bodily arteries, so fatbergs clog the arteries of our infrastructure. The fried chickens are coming home to roost.

A fatberg is a moral symbol, an objective correlative of our cosmic complacency. It is, notes JEA, ‘everything you flush or put down the sink, but shouldn’t. Every wet wipe, batch of bacon grease, paper towels [sic] and even Barbie doll heads… It all congeals, ferments and seethes beneath the streets, growing with every flush. All of our non-biodegradable waste, all of our overlooked laziness, blocking toilets and breaking sewer pipes.’

All of our overlooked laziness. For a lapsed Catholic like me, it is hard not to see personal and planetary health in religious terms — the sins we commit against our bodies and our Earth are stored up invisibly for a moral reckoning at a later day. The day of judgement is the day of the heart scan, the extreme weather event, the grotesquely exposed fatberg.

It will take more than a Fitbit or a 10p plastic bag to save us now.

· Dan Brotzel is co-author of a new comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound)

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