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.
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