The packed bus crawled along through the smog following an inspector who carried a flaming torch so the driver wouldn’t lose sight of him. The ‘Keep Left’ bollards in the middle of the road were circled by metal pots filled with flaming oil, the effect was medieval and frightening. It was only a few yards from the bus stop to the entrance of the estate, but I was nine and on my own, and a choking wall of dirty wet yellow smog blinded me, it was as if the air was solidifying and would smother me. Gripped by the icy fingers of panic I crept along. By feeling my way with my hands I found my block of flats. Indoors a yellowy damp mist hung around the rooms but mum lit the fire and soon everything was warm and homely.
Just before Christmas I was walking along Bowditch and caught the rare whiff of smoke from a coal fire. Smells can be very evocative, the scent of a log fire in a country pub, bread baking in the oven, the smell of a coal fire makes me feel nostalgic for simpler times. A tad sentimental perhaps, but I am. In this romantic reverie I turned into Longshore and walking towards me was a policeman wearing a proper helmet, with a tie under a buttoned tunic, just like my childhood hero PC 49. Nothing ‘hi-vis’ about this copper, and he didn’t appear to be festooned with gas and pepper sprays, batons, and all the other stuff our policemen carry these days. My first thought was he might be an extra in a film that could be shooting nearby, but then I wondered if he was simply a bit of a traditionalist, like me. Whatever he was his appearance was strangely reassuring and added to my nostalgia.
Before we lived on the estate, we lived for a few months with my Auntie Clara and Uncle John in their tiny two-up-two-down in Cheam. Coming from Walworth and Peckham Clara believed she was in the country. Her ‘front room’ was only used at Christmas, we lived in the kitchen with its cavernous larder stacked with Ministry of Food dried milk tins. My uncle’s chair was in the corner next to the fireplace. He always had a stash of Dandys and Beanos under the cushion, and sometimes The Beezer. My interest in food started there in that kitchen, Clara cooked old-fashioned food: rabbit, heart, liver and dumplings, bread pudding, and so on. The smell of rabbit or heart cooking transports me back to her kitchen, if I shut my eyes I can see every detail. On Sundays her two grown-up sons came with their families, and eleven of us would squeeze around a table meant for six at the most, while Tip the dog hovered under the table hopefully and the budgie chattered to his mirror. Summer meant salad from the garden, and I first tasted mussels, cockles and winkles, and had my first taste of beer from a spoon wielded by Uncle John. Winter was stews and roasts, I was instructed by my uncle in the mysteries of the Yorkshire Pud, and the pudding mixing became my job on Sunday morning. Uncle was from Newcastle, or “Noocassel” as he said. He’d been a rivet boy in the shipyards, catching red-hot rivets in a bucket (“bunnet” he said because the bucket was conical like a bonnet) as they were thrown up from the quay-side to the riveters. Then came the war and he fought with the 8th Army in the desert, demobbed he met Clara, widowed by the war. They seemed perfectly matched and happy; even happier when Uncle John won a small amount on the Pools, enough to buy a television and bring the toilet indoors!
Uncle suffered with his chest, perhaps the searing heat of the rivets, or the dust of the desert, or maybe the coal fire in the kitchen. Or the ounce of Golden Virginia he would send me to buy from the off-licence, along with a bottle of Mackeson for Auntie Clara. The smogs that came in November and December every year were very difficult for him. 1952 was the year of The Great Smog, the smog lasted for 4 days in December and it was reckoned 4,000 people died and 100,000 were made ill by the smog, recent research increases the death toll to 12,000, an almost unimaginable figure by today’s standards. At the time people thought it was normal, something that happened every year, and after all, London was famous for its fog. But this was the worst air pollution episode in our history. I don’t remember the Great Smog but I do remember the St Johns rail crash in the thick fog of December 1957 when 90 people died.
The smogs weren’t a 20th Century phenomenon, the mid 19th Century suffered from endless smogs caused by hundreds of thousands of household chimneys, thousands of factories, and the power stations. Deptford and Greenwich both had power stations, Deptford’s first was at the Stowage, in 1891 it was the biggest power station in the world and operated till 1957. Another power station, Deptford West, was built in 1929 and operated till 1983.
If you’ve visited the States you’ll know that most Americans think London is permanently shrouded in fog, London’s fog is part of our heritage. The Victorians were obsessed with it probably because it made their lives difficult, dangerous, and maybe exciting. Thomas Miller in 1852 describes how someone milking a cow in the street near Smithfield had to hang on to her tail for fear of losing her, and how the butchers in Smithfield would sometimes leave their cellar flaps open in the fog hoping a stray sheep or prize bullock might tumble down and add to their stock! American visitor Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1857 that it was so dark at 10am he had candles placed on his breakfast table, and that later it was even darker: ‘very black, indeed, more like a distillation of mud than anything else; the ghost of mud,—the spiritualized medium of departed mud, through which the dead citizens of London probably tread, in the Hades whither they are translated. So heavy was the gloom, that gas was lighted in all the shop-windows; and the little charcoal-furnaces of the women and – boys, roasting chestnuts, threw a ruddy, misty glow around them. And yet I liked it. This fog seems an atmosphere proper to huge, grimy London.’ Not for nothing was London known as ‘The Smoke.’
“This,” said Mr Guppy to Miss Summerson in Bleak House, “is a London Particular. A fog Miss.”
Charles Dickens used the thick yellow smog as a metaphor for the law in ‘Bleak House’, something common to everyone but at the same time keeps them apart. In ‘Barnaby Rudge’ he mentions the ‘link boys’ that carried flaming torches and for a ‘joey’ (fourpenny bit) would guide you home. Pea soup was sold, half a pint for a halfpenny, on street corners; in the mid 19th Century it was estimated there were 500 pea soup stands in London. Made at home by the poorest it was reheated over and over, ‘Pease porridge hot, Pease porridge cold, Pease porridge in the pot Nine days old‘ goes the old nursery rhyme. Pease was both singular and plural, porridge was pottage a thick semi-solid dish now called Pease Pudding. Auntie Clara often made Pease Pudding for my uncle, in the north-east it was almost the national dish. I didn’t like it much when I was younger, now of course I love it. The yellow pea soup is more solid than liquid and gave the fog its name: ‘pea-souper’. Because the smog was particular to London it became known as ‘A London Particular’.
Pea Soup, A London Particular.
Serves 4 – 6
Preparation time: 10 – 15 minutes.
Cooking time: 2 hrs 10mins.
1 500 g packet of dried split yellow peas, soaked in cold water overnight then drained (£1 from Robert Walker, aka John’s in Deptford High Street)
900 g pork belly slices (about 6 slices)
Little rock salt
A little oil, or lard (more traditional), about a serving spoonful.
675 g vegetables, finely chopped, to include half a large onion, carrots, 2 or 3 sticks of celery.
1 ham hock
1 bay leaf, 2 or 3 sprigs of fresh thyme, and 3 pieces of parsley. All tied together with string.
Freshly ground black pepper.
Bay leaves for garnish
Season the pork strips with some rock salt.
Melt the oil or lard in a very large pan, the type your auntie would own, then brown the pork on all sides till the fat begins to melt.
Add the vegetables and the peas (the soaked peas will have more than doubled in weight) to the pan. Tuck the ham hock and the herbs in the middle and cover with boiling water. Simmer gently for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Season with some freshly ground black pepper.
You can serve immediately, or let it cool then reheat it (remember the rhyme, pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold…).
Serve in large bowls with a pork strip and a couple of slices of the ham. Garnish with small bay leaves and have some fresh bread to soak up the soup .
©2012 David Porter.