Monday, 20 October 2008
Most people, reading a book or seeing a film that features fog in London would see it as romantic. It conjures up pictures of Sherlock Holmes, Hansom Cabs, cobbled streets, gaslight. On the other hand, one could picture Jack The Ripper stalking the filthy alleys of Whitechapel in search of a hapless victim, blood running into the gutters and an aura of fear pervading the streets.
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, every big city in the United Kingdom began experiencing fogs. The ones that covered London were known as "London Particulars" or alternatively - "Pea Soupers". Factory chimneys were belching out smoke all the time and the normal method of heating homes was the coal fire. People came to accept pollution as part of everyday life. Many thousands must have had their lives shortened by it. The fogs came in various colours, they could be brown, reddish-yellow or greenish.
As the years passed, the fogs got worse, usually beginning in November and going on through December. The coming of the really cold weather and snow would see them off. Nothing was done about them. They were just part of life in the cities. Generations grew up knowing them, they had always been part of the winter. It was not realised that man himself was adding to the problem.
Came December 1952, the month and year of the last killer fog to hit London. It was thick and yellow, not romantic and misty. It was acrid, it stank of sulphur, it burned your eyes and made them water, it stung and burned your nose and your throat. Conditions all combined to make it the worse fog known.
A warm air front had settled over the Thames valley bringing the fog. The fog covered everything like a thick blanket and trapped beneath it, the smoke from millions of coal fires that burned in peoples' homes. To make matters worse, there were three power stations situated in populous areas of the City that were also pouring out smoke. So the fog and the smoke combined to make the worst smog ever known.
In the early nineteen-fifties, Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy. To help the economy, the government was exporting the best coal overseas. Britons had to contend with burning inferior and much smokier coal on their own fires.
So, came the great smog. I remember it very well. I walked in it. Life had to go on. My mother dared not go out because a couple of years earlier she had almost died from pleurisy, so any errands that had to be done were done by me. We had to wear face masks and it was an unearthly experience trying to find your way through this oppressive and deadly barrier to get to any local shop that was open.
I remember the silence. Everything was muffled, everything stilled. The visibility was so bad, particularly at night, that you could walk into someone without ever knowing that they were there. Transport was nearly at a standstill. Vehicles that were on the road had to be led by someone carrying a flare or a flashlight.
You could not escape it, it entered homes down chimneys, through cracks in window frames, under doors, it was a creeping, lethal menace. It turned the net curtains a filthy yellowy-brown, it left a grey film on everything. If you blew your nose or coughed, this horrible black mucous would come forth. Those with weak respiratory systems, the very young, the elderly - they literally suffocated to death, their lips slowly turning blue. Ambulances could not reach the suffering, what ambulances could get onto the streets had to crawl at a snail's pace.
People had no choice, they just had to make the best of it and try and continue the daily grind in whatever fashion they could. Theatres were closed because not only could people not reach them, but if they did, they would not be able to see the actors on the stage - so thick was the acrid curtain.
One thing made it bearable - people helped each other. Whether it was the camaraderie left over from the war, or the fact that troubles of any kind tend to bring people together, is debatable, but you did not have to feel fear when outside. Not the fear that a woman or child might experience now when out in the dark.
I remember once seeing a faint light coming towards me. I could just make it out with my streaming eyes but did not see the person behind it. I crashed headlong into this gentleman who was coming from the opposite direction. He was carrying a flashlight. He took me by the hand and led me safely home, going completely out of his way. You would not let a stranger lead you anywhere today.
The fog lasted for four or five days before eventually dispersing. During that time around 4,000 people died from breathing problems. In the following four months another 12,000 people died. The government has always tried to play down these figures.
It was obvious that something had to be done. So came the Clean Air Act. Factory regulations were tightened. People had to burn smokeless fuel on their fires. The fogs continued until the early nineteen-sixties but to a lesser degree and never again did the killer smog strike London, that is until recently.
Smogs are making their appearance again. With the heavy traffic density and "global warming", London is now getting subject to smogs once more - although not on the scale of some American cities and the smog now tends to strike in the summer.
It was an experience, one that is engraved on my mind, one I shall never forget, but I pray to God that we never again see the like of the killer fog of 1952.
Now, on a lighter note, here is the recipe for a delicious warming winter soup named after the fogs. Also a perfect soup to serve for Halloween.
Half an ounce of butter.
2 ounces of bacon rashers, rinded and chopped.
One medium onion, skinned and roughly chopped.
One medium carrot, diced.
One celery stick, chopped.
One pound dried split peas.
Four pints stock - can be chicken, ham or even vegetable.
Salt and pepper.
Four tablespoons of natural yoghourt.
Choppped grilled bacon and croutons to garnish.
1. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the bacon, onion, carrot and celery and cook for five to ten minutes, until beginning to soften.
2. Add the peas and stock and bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for one hour, until the peas are soft.
3. Allow to cool slightly, then puree in a blender or food processor until smooth.
4. Return the soup to the pan. Season to taste, add the yoghourt and re-heat gently. Serve hot, garnished with chopped grilled bacon and croutons.