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“This is a London Particular, a Fog…”

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.

Inspector with Flaming Torch in front of an RT Doubledecker

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.

My PC 49 Annual

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.

St John's Rail Crash 1957, from "St John's Lewisham 50 Years On, Restoring the Traffic." By Peter Tatlow. Published by The Oakwood Press.

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.

Deptford West Power Station in 1973. Photograph from geograph.org.

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.’

Link Boys in a London Particular

“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’.

London Particular, or Pea Soup

Pea Soup, A London Particular.

Serves 4 – 6

Preparation time: 10 – 15 minutes.

Cooking time: 2 hrs 10mins.

Ingredients:

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

Method:

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 .

Easy-Peasy!

©2012 David Porter.


Today Deptford…Tomorrow The World!

©2011David Porter

This old t-shirt, bought at the Albany Empire around 1980, is one of my prize possessions.  Every weekend we were either at the Albany, the Tramshed, The Duke, or the Royal Albert.  Sometimes all of them, and there was always a party afterwards at somebody’s house or flat, with the musicians and actors turning-up and rocking-on. There’s a very good book about this period, “Rock Around Lewisham” by local author and musician Mel Wright, I recommend it.  The old Albany Empire was in Creek Road near Albury Street, and famous for Rock Against Racism concerts, sadly in 1978 it burnt down and after a brief revival it was demolished to make way for a wider road.  The Albany rose again in Douglas Way and we all joined (you joined in those days) because the acts and the atmosphere were really electric, everybody from the Flying Pickets to Bo Diddley, via Pookiesnackenburger and Billy Connelly.  Squeeze were the dominant band, somehow more authentic than the equally ginormous Dire Straits.  I seem to remember Dire Straits supporting Squeeze at the old Albany, but I might be wrong.  Deptford was really buzzing: Bowie and the Spiders From Mars were rehearsing Ziggy Stardust in Underhill Studios (now Gee-Pharm chemists) at the bottom of Blackheath Hill, with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in attendance; John Cale of the Velvet Underground was here producing Squeeze, Mark Perry’s ‘Sniffin’ Glue‘ was being edited from a flat on the Crossfields Estate, and local band Rubber Johnny, led by John Turner were filling the gap between the opening act and the headliners at the Royal Albert. Soon they became so popular they were headlining their own gigs.

John Turner and Rubber Johnny at the Royal Albert c1982. ©Steve Golton.

In 1980 Squeeze released ‘Argybargy’, the last album with Jools Holland on keyboards. I was at the time what you’d call a rock photographer and photographed Squeeze several times.

Squeeze 1980 ©David Porter.

Squeeze photographed in 1980 by David Porter.

This picture was taken in 1980 in an old pea warehouse under the Floral Hall in Covent Garden which had been converted into a cavernous underground studio, I’ve still got the parachute.

In 1982 John Turner adapted Squeeze’s ‘East Side Story’ into a stage production for the Albany and called it ‘Labelled With Love.’ We were there when it opened, along with Tim Rice who was probably picking up a few tips on musical theatre. The play was set in a smoky Deptford boozer threatened with conversion into a disco cocktail bar, the fictional ‘Nail in the Heart’.  “It’s happening everywhere,” sighed Eric the pub landlord, “Bermondsey has fallen, Peckhams on the way, and Lewisham is sure to follow...” We all murmured agreement, and after the show trooped round to The Duke on Creek Road, transformed for the show’s run into The Nail, complete with  pub sign of a heart pierced by a nail, the landlord of The Duke was called Erich.

The opening track of ‘East Side Story’ is ‘In Quintessence’, one of those tunes you can’t get out of your head. A song about a 15 year old boy’s fantasy about a girl that he never sees, while he smokes himself into oblivion in his messy bedroom listening to his transistor radio. The ‘in quintessence’ hook is the bit I can never get out of my head. I didn’t know what quintessence meant at the time, I assumed it was a made up word something to do with quinces. Now I’ve found out one possible meaning is the fifth element!  The Greeks and Roman believed the quince was the golden apple, Aphrodite’s fruit of love.

Quince ©2011 David Porter.

It has the perfume of a loved woman and the same

    hardness of heart, but it has the colour of the

    impassioned and scrawny lover.”  

    (Shafer ben Utman al-Mushafi, died 982AD)
   
                                                                                                         

I’ve been given some quinces, from a tree on an allotment in Catford, and some from my friend in Lee with the greengage tree. Turkish shops are selling quinces now, at about £2 per kilo; their quinces are bigger than my home-grown variety but they all have the most subtle but unique perfume. You could just buy a bowlful and leave them to scent the room.

Plan of Sayes Court Garden in the 1650s. The British Library.

The quince is one of England’s forgotten fruit. We can be certain John Evelyn would have had quince trees among his 300 fruit trees in the orchard at Sayes Court, along with the similarly forgotten medlars, mulberries and vines, lemons, apricots and pomegranates.  Thanks to London’s Lost Garden I know that he listed a ‘Portugal Quince’ in his 1687 Directions for the Gardiner.  Quince trees in England were first recorded at the Tower of London in 1275, possibly they were here before 1275 but Evelyn’s Portugal Quince was introduced in 1611 by John Tradescant who was working as head gardener for Robert Cecil at Hatfield House.

Quinces ©2011 David Porter.

This recipe for baked quinces is adapted from the recipe in Jane Grigson’s ‘Fruit Book’, but they don’t have to be reserved for sweet puddings. Mrs Grigson gives recipes for quinces with beef, and with pheasant for instance, and I know of a Persian recipe for quinces stuffed with minced lamb. Mrs Grigson wrote that baked quinces were Isaac Newton’s favourite pudding, and of course Newton and John Evelyn were friends. It’d be nice to imagine John bidding farewell to Isaac, and pressing a bag of quince onto his friend, “I’ve so many…take some home…”

Baked Quince ©2011 David Porter

Baked Quince

Preparation time:  10 minutes

Cooking time:         90 minutes +

Ingredients (serves 4):

1 quince per person (assuming they are of a suitable size, otherwise 1 or 2 per person)

Juice of one or two lemons

150g caster sugar

110g unsalted butter

3 tbs double cream (or more if necessary)

2 glasses of sweet white wine

1 cinnamon stick, gently pulled into a few shards

Method:

Either peel entirely, or as I did peel strips from each quince. Hollow out the centre of each fruit, without piercing all the way through. I used an apple-corer but this is more difficult than it might appear, quinces are very hard! Squeeze lemon juice over the peeled exterior and the hollowed-out cores. Butter a small-ish roasting tin and stand the quinces in the dish. If necessary cut them a flatter bottom so they stand up.

Then mix together the sugar, butter, and cream, till the mixture is smooth and creamy. Fill the hollowed cores with this mixture, finishing with a tablespoon of sugar sprinkled over the top of each fruit. Scatter some shards of cinnamon stick around the dish.

Put in your oven preheated to 200C and bake for about 25 minutes, then pour in the wine. Carry on baking till the quince is tender. I tested for this with a slim skewer pushed through the side of a quince, avoiding the hard centre. If you’ve any of the creamy mixture left now is the time to top up the middles of your quinces. They took about 90 minutes altogether, you could reduce the heat to 180C and cook them for longer depending how soft you like your puddings I served them after transferring them to a heated dish and pouring some of the liquid around the quince, and have some cream ready to pour over them at the last minute.

©2011 David Porter.


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