Bank holiday lie in

Although this upcoming Easter Friday and Monday bank holiday was established by the 1871 Bank Holiday Act, these two holy days for England have basically existed since records began.  Or at least a little further back in the mists of time than that.  In the middle ages, boatsmen lay down their hoary oars in the April mists of early morning and failed to take any Londoner upstream on the Thames.  The City billowed itself down in dreamy quietness, for the remainder of the festivities.  I am not sure why – someone died, someone rose again – why?! – but we stopped.  And everyone loved it.  Except they got confused by the change in the Sainsburys opening times.

Not that this four day break was the most important bank holiday of the calendar way back in the Middle Ages.  You see, in those days there were a total of 33 Saints Days, so plenty of time for rest and relaxation.  These days we are de-sainted and de-sanctified and, as Blur reminded us in the mid-90s, “Bank holiday comes 6 times a year and bank holiday comes with a 6 pack of beer”.  I bet that one had Shakespeare spinning in his grave, as nothing quite captures and ruinous liberty of a four day bank holiday than Colchester mockneys scraping around on a back lawn in Adidas tracksuits pretending to be working class and salivating over the nearest greyhound.  Now, it’s no longer the 1990s, so now we are supposed to spend our bank holidays fetishizing over a grim hobby that has the word “British” in its bunting-esque title.  “Great British Bake Off Bank Holiday Victoria Sponge Fest” or “Great British Sewing Bee Knitting Festival” or “Great British Allotment Feng Shui” in which we all download our 1950s gingham dress iMac apps and pretend we live in a world where no one has invented the contraceptive pill yet and that the one thing that a lady really requires is a pair of nylons.  The way to our Great British hearts is to spend our leisure time avoiding a soggy bottom.

Soggy bottoms are one thing, but a lie in is quite another and Bank Holidays tap into the Great British Suspicion of Decadent Liberty.  We are a nation marinated in the Protestant work ethic, a needless and stinky Victorian hangover.  That is why the kind of things the Great British Bunting Lifestyle schtick would have us do revolve around healthy activity (cooking, sewing, knitting, gardening); sober, homely and hearty activities that keeps peoples hands busy and stops them doing what they really want to do on a day off which is get drunk and play with themselves.   Great television though that may be, you can’t actually broadcast a programme that sings of the virtues of getting drunk and masturbating although – if we all put down our garden trowels and gardening gloves for a moment and were honest with ourselves – that’s mainly all human beings really want to do for pleasure anyway.  Not that you can tell BBC2 that on a Tuesday night of course.

The Queen certainly won’t be doing it, because she’ll be in Blackburn Cathedral today handing out Maundy money to those precious 88 pensioners who will be in receipt of the sovereign’s gift of a red bag and a white bag filled with coins.  It’s rather War of Roses colour scheme, there, and liable to get the Lancastrians up in arms looking for a Yorkist to kill, but I take it the Queen knows what she is doing.  The amount of pensioners selected to receive Maundy money are the same number as the sovereign is old.  And they don’t get much.  But they can sell their Maundy money on Ebay for a much higher price at a later date.  Not that it makes much difference if you’re a pensioner, whether it’s Easter or not.  Once you get past 70 every day’s a bank holiday as far as I can make out, a long hazy cluster of days clad in shades of taupe and punctuated by Countdown and a lot of trips to the bathroom.

But those older people are old enough to remember when New Year’s Day wasn’t even a bank holiday (only a recent addition, started in 1974, and dedicated solely to St Crippling Headache, the Patron Saint of Hangovers).   In 1965, they moved August Bank Holiday from the first Monday in August to the last one, and also abolished the “Whitsun” and turned it into the imaginative and totally romantic title of The Late Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday of May.  In 1978 they went absolutely mental and gave us another Bank Holiday at the beginning of May, failing to realise that what we really needed was a break in the Bank Holiday drought between September and Christmas, and the nation could do with five days off in October.  The Scots manage to break this drought by cleverly arranging a Bank Holiday for November 30th every year.  The English are not so lucky.

The Cornish unofficially take St Piran’s Day off (5th March) although it isn’t recognised by royal proclamation, as a Bank Holiday by law has to be, it is a local tradition throughout the whole county.  Nothing is open in Cornwall on 5th March.  The Welsh are yet to establish St David’s Day as a proper Bank Holiday, and St Patrick’s Day has only been recognised in Northern Ireland as a Bank Holiday as recently as 2008.  The English have never been successful in their occasional calls for St George’s Day / Shakespeare’s birthday to be recognised on April 23rd, but this is mainly because it falls too close to the Easter break / May Day bank holiday glut to actually be of any benefit.  Calls for a Trafalgar Day Bank Holiday for October 21st have generally been met with a lack of enthusiasm from Parliament.    Instead Parliament ram occasional Bank Holidays at us to confuse us – we’ve had several of them in the last few years.  Royal Wedding, Queens Diamond Jubilee (two days for that) and even the day before the Millenium – 31st December 1999 – was decreed a one off bank holiday to help people prepare for their Millenium parties, missing the point that what we actually needed was a week off afterwards to clear up.

Whatever you are doing, dearest hard working people of London, enjoy this four day break by doing precisely what you want.  In London, it’s Berwick Street’s Record Store Day on Saturday for vinyl covers lovers, the Urban Food Fest opens in Shoreditch on the same day, and those of you who want to engage in drunken Christianity can join the Christathon pub crawl (biblical dress compulsory) that starts in Borough High Street.  The Moscow State Circus are here, for their last weekend, at Alexandra Palace,  and Kew Gardens has a Roald Dahl themed fortnight where you can create your own chocolate bar.  The Waterway Charity Thames21 is offering sketching classes on a Thames narrow boat (see The Londonist), and the Feast of St George will take place on Monday in Trafalgar Square, which sounds like a combination of a Monty Python sketch and an EDL day trip, or if you prefer something high-falutin’ you can heard to Shakespeare’s Globe on Monday for a family fun day of puppetry, stage craft and free drama for the kids.   If you really want to depress yourself you can have breakfast with the Easter Bunny at The Hard Rock Cafe (I kid ye not) for the bumper cost of £11.95 pre book.  Price includes one of Bill Wyman’s Sticky Fingers.    The V&A is also bringing out its puppets for children, but this usually makes the under 5s cry so I wouldn’t recommend it.

Then again, you could just stay in and listen to Blur and drink 6 packs of beer and bring yourself off to The Great Allotment Challenge.  I don’t care.  It’s your holiday.

Happy Easter.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is updated fortnightly so we will next update on Thursday May 1st.  See you then, The London Bluebird x x x



A London Particular

By the time you read this, you won’t be able to read this.  We shall all be clutching London railings, staggering around in a thick fog, muttering “damn the Sahara” and wishing we’d left the house with our buckets and spades to make use of the scorching Saharan sand that may fly our way with the dust.  Are we about to fall into an Arabian Nights smog?   I hope not.   In 1952 the “Great Smog”, as it became known, was thought to have caused around 3,500 deaths from a people suffering asthma and lung type problems. Traffic couldn’t see where it was going.  so they lit flares to guide it.  London then decided that IHHE (It Had Had Enough) so in 1956, the sparkling new  Clean Air Act of 1956 was introduced.  But that was about as much use as a milk chocolate teapot, because most of the country was still burning coal fires to stop themselves dying of ‘flu in the winter.  The air still smelt Dickensian.   Even in the 1970s some Londoners recall having to grope at railings on pavements to guide themselves along, but this was probably because that by night, people were so terrorised by the prospect of bumping into someone bedecked in orange flares, sucking “Spangles” and looming around the City in a “Mud” T shirt.

Fog off.  I mean, in this day and age.  Really.  But then it was in very recent times – 2011, in fact – that London’s air pollution rates were recorded at dangerously high levels.  In 2012, the WHO (The World Health Organisation, not the band) said that worldwide 7 million people had died due to air pollution.  And 6.5million of them were attempting to walk down the Euston Road.  So whilst our cars pump out more and more (the biggest culprits being Diesel cars) pollution, we drive less within inner London, cycle more, no longer have power stations vomiting out soot on the Thames’ riverbanks, use smokeless fuel if we’re Observer-reading wood-burning types and have given up the much loved English habit of burning witches.  “London is hit by dirty cocktail of pollutants!” Our Evening Standard shouted yesterday, forgetting the lunatic poison wheel of the M25 which circles our City like an evil planet daily, choking up our air and destroying the fabric of the universe.  No, far easier to blame the Saharans.  Blame them for everything.  We can blame the Saharans for the housing price bubble.  Blame the Saharans for the Central Line remedial weekend engineering works.  Blame the Saharans for the unexplained dip in Christian Bale’s duller-than-dishwater acting career.

Of course, European industrial emissions are floating over from Euroland, adding spice to the so-called Smog Soup we are all drinking in.  London is set to score 8 out of 10 on the Smog-o-meter this week.  I thought 8 out of 10 was good.  Well, it is if it’s a Maths test or something, but for a City’s pollution rating it is very bad.   Yet the Standard also wrote yesterday that those with “heart or lung problems were warned not to take exercise outdoors” and that this may “threaten the London Marathon preparations for some runners.”  Well, certainly if you have a lung problem the first thing you’d want to do is bolt about the City for 26 miles at an ungodly hour of a Sunday morning dressed like a Smurf because you want to DIE.   What person in their right mind enters a Marathon and dons the fetching “Flora” ball-hugging shorts when they have a heart condition?   The Standard then ran a series of 11 pictures showing us what traffic looks like in the smog, what buses look like crossing Waterloo Bridge in the smog, and what Canary Wharf looks like in the smog (if you’re interested, the same as usual but without quite so much visibility of the building that looks like a massive penis).  But the first thing that I thought when I looked at this paltry set of unhappy cars sitting in traffic around the Blackwall Tunnel in smog, was “That’s not smog.  That’s just London”, which made me then think that all these years it’s just looked that way and that we’ve been smoked out with smog for decades and no one told me.

What, then, was a London Particular?  And what caused it?  In the 1860s it was as foreign to those coming to London from the country as it is to us Londoners in 2014.  In Chapter 3 of “Bleak House”, when Esther arrives in London, she asks of the person meeting her, “whether there was a great fire anywhere? For the streets were so full of dense brown smoke that scarcely anything was to be seen. ‘O, dear no, miss,’ he said. ‘This is a London particular.’ I had never heard of such a thing. ‘A fog, miss,’ said the young gentleman.”

London Particulars were usually yellowish or greenish, prompting its association with pea soup.  A “pea-souper” was the colloquial term for a heavy London smog, and the ‘London Particular’ became a dish, a thick pea and ham soup.

Pea Souper


This is a pea-souped pic from the 1950s.

The worst thing about the feeling of the smog on your skin was its greasiness.  This pea souper, the Great Smog of 1952, was blacker and more damaging to the lungs of London than those that went before.  Visibility was reduced to no more than a couple of yards.  Animals suffocated in fields.  At Smithfield cattle market cows collapsed and had to be destroyed to be put out of their misery.  Traffic collisions became more common and with higher rates of mortalities.  The problem with the Great Smog of 1952, where it was said that people in the East End couldn’t actually see their own feet once they were out of the house, was that people stoked up their coal fires more and more as it was a very cold December.  This made the situation only worse.  A total of 1,000 tonnes of coal was being burned in London’s fireplaces, producing 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and the poorer you were, the cheaper and more dustier was the coal.  Dusty coal only increased the pollutants the household was producing.  When the sulphur dioxide was released from the chimneys and came into contact with the moist London air sulphuric acid was produced – which is deadly.  Sir Donald Acheson, the government’s former chief medical officer, had his work cut out for him as hospital admissions soared.  Not that the doctors were able to locate their hospitals easily, though.  Acheson said he had to feel his way through deserted streets: ‘I had to creep along the walls of the buildings, to the next corner, to read the name of the street.’

You know you are dealing with Britain’s worst peacetime catastrophe when the undertakers start running out of coffins.  That’s exactly what happened at the end of December 1952.   The hospital wards were so overrun that the Middlesex Hospital had to move some of the men who were in acute respiratory distress into the Obstetrics Ward, which must have come as a bit of shock to the women trying to give birth.    People would be surprised by returning from work to find that a layer of greasy black soot was stuck to their eyebrows, and another oily coating stuck to their hair.  Opening the windows didn’t do any good; the smog came in, gluing itself in tiny black flakes onto every surface, and blackening the curtains.

Unsurprisingly, the 1956 Clean Air Act was a direct result of the Great Smog of 1952-3, abolishing the use of certain coals and woods within designated Smoke Control Areas.  It was also the beginning of politicians recognising the public need for understanding how to protect the environment.  Whilst there had been previous clean air bills they were largely ineffective as they didn’t take a robust, scientific approach to the nature of the chemical compounds that London was producing (useless bills: The Smoke Nuisance Abatement Acts 1853 and 1856 and the Public Health (London) Act 1891).  Amended in 1968, The Clean Air Act had a huge effect on the improvement of Londoners day to day respiratory and environmental health.

So, should we really be worried about the Saharan smog?  Or, is the current media awareness on it merely a reflection of the fact that on April 1st this year, The Met Office took over the business of being the public face of air pollution from DEFRA, and the Met Office are so much more media savvy than their predecessors?  Either way, surely what we really need would be a spokesman standing up and telling everyone to stop buying diesel cars and stop to consider every time they get into a car what they are doing to the rest of us.  Yet, no one does.  Didn’t they used to say that the sign of a healthy economy was the sale rates of new cars?  Perhaps they want us to keep buying them and keep buying them. How thrillingly honest would it to tell everyone that flying short haul and driving a car is killing the atmosphere?  Now, that really would be a breath of fresh air.


Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this week’s instalment.  The blog is updated every other Thursday, so we will be back on 17th April.  See you then!  London Bluebird xx xx xx