Wednesday, December 05, 2012


Today was the sixtieth anniversary of one of the defining smogs of London. It started on 5th December 1952 and continued for four days, bringing death it is said to some 4,000 people. A ‘smog’, for those unfamiliar with the word, is a combination of smoke and fog that, in urban areas, can reduce visibility almost to nothing while being very bad for the lungs due to the chemicals trapped in the water vapour. They were known in London as ‘pea soupers’, reflecting the vaguely greenish yellow colour of the smoke-filled vapour.

At the time of the ’52 smog we were living at Bush Barn Farm in Robertsbridge and, as I would have been 14, I must have been at Lancing College. However, I remembered earlier smogs when we were still at the Green Walk in Chingford, north London, particularly one occasion when I walked with my father into a murky, after dark Ridgeway as far as the bus stop, unable to see more than a few feet in front of us

Cities, of course, burnt a vast amount of coal. On journeys by train from Chingford to Liverpool Street we used to travel across an overhead section of the line through an area we called Chimney Pot Corner from the squadrons of the eponymous structures sticking up from the roofs of the tightly packed terraced houses. I think this must have been just west of St James Street station in Walthamstow (TQ362886) now, in part, a conservation area.

On 6th December 1962 there was another memorable smog in London that went on for several days. I was working at the Automobile Association’s Emergency Service in Leicester Square, but used to commute every day by train from Robertsbridge. On this occasion I was due to do a night shift and the train, which ran very late, could get no further that Waterloo (its normal terminus was Charing Cross over the Thames). It was only quite a short walk to Leicester Square so I set off over the river bridge, passing people in soot-blackened smog masks looking like ghostly surgeons. It was here, for the first time, that I realised that the sulphur dioxide in smog had a distinctive taste, an almost meaty flavour, though described by one commentator as “like licking rusty metal”.

On the northern side of the river the smog was so thick I had difficulty working out quite where I was, though I knew the area well, and eventually I ended up in the Aldwych, maybe half a mile east of where I intended to be. I did, however, manage to find my way back to Leicester Square and it was quite important to keep the London Emergency Service of the AA going through such appalling conditions

One of the night shift jobs at the AA was to telephone a series of garages around the area as dawn broke before the morning rush hour and ask about the fog and local visibility. This was usually calculated by the overnight mechanic looking out of the window. A report was then put together which was passed on to radio stations and other media. On 6th December 1962 according to the BBC “one AA spokesman described the icy stretch of road on the A12 near Chelmsford as ‘a battlefield’ after a series of minor accidents.” I wonder if that might have been me.

After the 1952 and 1962 episodes clean air legislation saw an end to these unforgettable smogs. We did, however, see some very thick conditions in the industrial parts of northern England when we lived in Derbyshire. I remember, in the late 1960s, motoring home from Ramsbottom in Lancashire through towns like Oldham in thick fog when ground level paraffin flares had been set up at street corners. Nowadays in Sussex we just have mist, white and benign mist that fills the river valleys, and wanders in from the sea a few times a year. So far as fog is concerned, no one can beat that wonderful description of a pea souper in the opening paragraphs of Dickens’s Bleak House: “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. ....”.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Red currants

We had several large slices of cold roast lamb which I wanted to use for shepherd’s pie. Rather than the traditional sweet/sharp enhancements like tomato, wine or Worcestershire sauce I decided to add some red currant juice.

I found a plastic box of red currants on the fruit shelves of Sainsburys supermarket in St. Leonards. Round, red, translucent pearls with shining skins each with a small withered crown of calyx leaves at their south pole. Each fruit was attached by a short stalk to a central string that had once hung enticingly from a branch of a carefully tended bush.

One of my long-held ambitions has been to grow a plant as a cordon on a shady north wall where the fruit can ripen slowly protected by some sort of cover from marauding birds.

For my shepherd’s pie I took about one third of the currants and squashed the juice out into my meat and vegetable mix by squeezing and scraping them through a fine mesh steel sieve with a metal spoon.

The following day I used the rest of the fruit to make red currant jelly to a recipe of 19th C Eliza Acton found on the Internet. It was very simple. I mixed the currants, stalks included, with their own weight of sugar and put them in my small, expensive sauce saucepan with a little water to help the initial dissolving of the sugar.

I heated the pan while stirring the mixture, pressing the currants against the side with a wooden spoon until I had a quantity of wine-dark liquid bubbling vigorously in the vessel. The boil was allowed to continue for 8 minutes and the resulting hot mash was strained into a jug through the same steel sieve I had used for the shepherd’s pie.

The filtered liquid set to a firm jelly rapidly. When it was cold I lowered the sharp end of a teaspoon into the jug and scooped out a dollop. It had a clear, pure colour, a gemstone colour like a piece of medieval stained glass as though all the red in the universe was reflected from its soft walls, and transmitted through them. It tasted like it looked.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hastings (East Sussex) street art

I am finding an increasing number of art manifestations around Hastings, perhaps following the St. Leonards mural by Banksy on a wall below the promenade.

First there was this little bird on a great splash of white paint looking as though it was leaping from a nest formed by an ivy-leaved toadflax plant in Waterworks Road.

20120522 Cymbalaria & graffiti Hastings (44)

Then I found this strange creature chalked on the pavement in Mann Street.  Is it a monster or a millipede or a fish bone? 

20120821 Mann St, Hastings (4)

Thirdly I came across this cluster of pink blackberries just outside the pedestrian tunnel leading from Bethune Way to the Queens Road area.  They have been carefully spray painted so that none of the colour appears on nearby stems and leaves - a charming and ephemeral manifestation.  Googling 'pink blackberries' produces, of course, endless web sites on Blackberry smartphones and little else.

20120828 Hastings art pink blackberries a

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A memoir for Alice Holroyd

On Friday, 15th June, our granddaughter Samantha was looking through some store boxes for documents my wife was after, when she came across and old photograph, loose, by itself. It was of Alice Holroyd, the unmarried sister of my maternal grandmother Emily Butler and therefore my great aunt and our children’s great great aunt.


She was born, I think, in the Bethnal Green area of London, though the surname has a Yorkshire origin and there was still some recollection of these northern roots when I was a child. One claim was that the family had a blood link to George Stephenson, the Northumbrian engineer who made the first public railway in the world to use steam locomotives, a line inaugurated in 1825.

Alice Holroyd, Auntie Alice as I knew her, spent her working life as a primary school teacher in West Ham, East London having trained at Goldsmiths College in Lewisham.

She often used to visit us at 5 The Green Walk in North Chingford on the north eastern outskirts of London. This was my grandparents’ house and we stayed with them during much of World War II and later after my grandmother died. Alice also used to come to Bush Barn Farm at Robertsbridge in East Sussex to where we moved in 1952. My parents left the farm in 1962 and Alice died in 1967 and I reckon the photo above, showing Bush Barn Farmhouse and the front garden, was taken around 1960. The central windows just to the left of Alice’s head are those of the bedroom that I occupied on and off for 8 years during the 1950s.

As a schoolteacher Alice knew how to be strict and often told me off when I was a small boy. I was intrigued by the fact that she was a vegetarian, although when she came to stay with us for the Christmas festivities (as she usually did) she would indulge herself in a few slices of ham.

Alice had many stories of her years as a teacher in the East End of London. Sometimes if a West Ham United football match was on the television she would remark of one or another of the players “he was one of my pupils: a naughty little boy.”

Many of her stories referred to her wartime experiences. She told us once that she was leading a small crocodile of her infants along the street when a German flying bomb came over and the engine stopped, which meant it was going to fall somewhere nearby. Not being within easy reach of an air-raid shelter she made the children lie down on the pavement. The bomb landed a safe distance away and they all got up again and carried on.

In her retirement Alice lived in a small flat in Wembley Park, quite close to the now demolished national sports stadium, with a female companion who I think she had known most of her life. I went to stay with them once for a couple of days.

Because of her age Alice did not qualify for much, or maybe any, pension so my grandfather, who was reasonably well off, provided most of her income.

A kind and perhaps rather lonely woman, but one who did much good in her life in a modest way. I was fond of her and I think she was not only fond of, but interested, in me and the other members of the family. The nephews and nieces and great nieces and great nephews (aka niblings and great niblings) of childless adults obviously have a special significance.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Reading Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls, I came across this well-known passage: Once, long ago, in the years of my youth, in those beautiful years that rolled so swiftly, I was full of joy, charmed when I arrived for the first time in an unknown place; it might be a farm, a poor little district town, a large village, a small settlement: my eager, childish eyes always found there many interesting objects. Every building, everything that showed an individual touch, enchanted my mind, and left a vivid impression.  The author then goes on to describe such a village in great detail.

I had to take our daughter to the dentist in the nearby town of Battle today and, waiting for her return and inspired by Gogol I wrote the following:

Battle.  Mount Street car park.

The whole area was dry, in the depths of a March drought and the sunlight had a peculiar, unseasonal intensity.  It made strong contrasts on the walls of the 1990s sheltered homes with their mixture of rufous and sardine-coloured bricks, their brown window frames and double glazed panes reflecting the light, white or dark, in angled patterns according to the degree to which they were open.

Cars came and went, some crawling to a halt, others driving quickly to their destination then stopping suddenly.

A woman acquaintance got out of one and we had a brief chat.  It transpired that she had found herself with a spare hour or so and was going to the funeral director's to get her parents-laws-ashes for later scattering in the sea.

To the right, across the minutely textured surface of the dry, grey asphalt access road and behind a low brick wall with similar particoloring  as the houses and with a small yellow sign saying "NO PARKING AT ANY TIME" stood a large horse chestnut tree with its buds fanning into green, slightly brown-tinted, leaves.A young woman with a beige top, faded red skirt and black tights stopped with two children in a double baby buggy under the tree, made a call on her mobile phone, then chanced to encounter a woman friend of similar age in a grey top and bright red tights.

They conversed animatedly for a couple of minutes then strolled off into the twitten leading to the High Street, passing en route a low, rectangular wooden planter strategically positioned by a sandstone wall on the twitten corner which contained primulas, tulips and hyacinths; white, orange and blue with their green leaves beneath trailing slightly over the lip of the planter.

My acquaintance with whom I had chatted earlier strolled back down the grey asphalt holding a smart green carrier bag which held her parents-in-law's ashes.

Immediately before me the scene was much more complex with another even lower brick wall stepped to maintain level topped sections all the way down to the public toilets which were built to look like a 1970s cottage with sloping tiled roofs and windows like unwrapped bars of white chocolate.

Just in front of the stepped wall was an array of street furniture: a CCTV warning sign in waspish black and yellow; a 1066 Country information sign; the menu of charges and conditions for parking; a silver cuboid obelisk for taking one's money in exchange for a ticket for a stay of one, two, four hours of more.  Next a planter made, perhaps, of a cement compound, dark brownish red with spots of white lichen.  Its summit plateau like a bad green haircut with various garden plants and weeds including some white-flowered patches of candytuft.

Next on the left a black rectangular litter bin of some indestructible modern material and lined with a flimsy blue plastic bag folded carefully over the four edges.  Below this, in relief letters of gold, was the single word LITTER.  Moving on down alongside the stepped wall the eye came to a shining, black-painted structure rather like and easel.  There were tapering posts on either side, ringed in gold and terminating in pointed ornaments rather like two upside down golf tees jammed one on top of the other to give a mini-minaret effect.  Subtended between these posts was a flat signboard saying Welcome to Battle in gold and black (this combination seeming to be the corporate colours of the town) over various pictures, a map and a box dispensing guide leaflets.  On the side of this receptacle, shaped rather like a large bird's nest box, was an inexplicably repetitive message: TOWN TOWN TOWN HERE.  Perhaps foreign visitors would think this was some witty use of the language that would be lost on a non-English speaker.

After a short uncharacteristically empty gap there was a small, leafless tree thrusting its branches skywards in front of the toilet wall.  It was encircled by a stout iron cage rising some two metres in the air and built to discourage vandals from attacking the maiden.  The iron cage, consisting of about a dozen thin upright black pillars, was held together by two metal bands and the uprights were  crowned with round tops like giant squash balls.

I was on the points of describing the tall silver pole carrying the CCTV cameras when our daughter arrived back from the dentist and we drove home.

Monday, February 20, 2012

In the distance

In the distance I can often see mountain ranges

The landscape of the future

Unlike the now and the past it is not greenish brown

But pale, translucent mauves and pinks

Like a shoal of frozen crystalline jellyfish