Category Archives: Britain

The Great Smog of 1952


Today marks the 60th anniversary of one of Britain’s worst disasters, one that is surprisingly obscure (I only found out about it because it forms the backdrop to a Doctor Who novel) and yet which cost the lives of around 12,000 people.

Frankly the Great Smog of 1952 sounds like the plot of a horror movie – weather conditions and air pollution combined to create a thick, choking smog that slowly poisoned those who inhaled it. It consumed the city, leaving a sooty residue in its wake and even making its way indoors, reducing visibility to a couple of metres. Descriptions sound almost apocalyptic in a strangely London-ish sort of way; it summons up images of Jack the Ripper prowling foggy, gas-lit streets, a mysterious, silent killer on the move with no-one entirely sure what was happening until it was too late. Londoners were used to fog, of course, but this was different; it was only after the smog cleared and people started to compare notes did the authorities realise that it had killed in the region of 12,000 people.

Not only is this tragic and somehow terrifying, it’s also mind-blowing – this happened within living memory, within the lifetime of my parents, and yet it’s relatively unknown. It had a great impact on environmentalism and legislation around acceptable levels of pollution in the UK but it’s not among the household names of British disasters, considering it killed more people than the Great Fire of London, which everyone’s heard of.

And so the Great Smog of 1952 is my own personal reminder that history is a lot bigger than we learn about at school. Sometimes huge and dramatic events take place that are forgotten with a few decades. The history books are fickle.

But they’re very, very interesting…

Hay-on-Wye, Town of Books


If you want a data haven, Sealand is the micro nation you need to go to; if you want a Segway, then go to North Dumpling Island. If you want books, however, then Hay-on-Wye is the destination of choice.

Hay was declared a micro nation by the self-proclaimed King of Hay, Richard Booth, in 1977. It was something of a publicity stunt that helped put Hay on the map. Previously a struggling market town, Booth’s dedication to the place has turned it into a Mecca for book retailers, with over 30 second hand bookstores operating within the town and its outskirts.

(Booth was, however, beheaded in effigy and Hay declared a commonwealth in 2009. Other booksellers felt that Booth had neglected his duty in drumming up publicity for the town. I think I might have seen the head earlier today actually.)

The story of Hay touches on several niche subjects and social concerns; micro nations, for instance, or library closures.

That last one’s a bit of a topical issue, what with libraries across the UK under threat from the Government’s austerity measures. It also raises the question of what happens to all the books. Earlier this week, when in Worcester, we visited a store run by an environmental charity that gave away books for free; in Hay’s case, the books traveled from further afield. Apparently, in response to a wave of library closures in the US, Booth took a group of Hay locals to America to bring back redundant stock.

This could be a lifeline for collections threatened by public spending cuts, with the concept of the ‘booktown‘ providing an escape route for books that would otherwise end up as landfill. I feel happier knowing there’s a sanctuary for quirky titles, titles like this:


This is particularly important at the moment. Browsing Hay’s bookstores, you can’t help but notice the petitions, protests against plans to build a giant supermarket in the area. This feels like a crime – unusual, out of print volumes threatened by Fifty Shades of Grey goo, the continuing homogenising of Britain’s towns.

That said, all those books have a permanence to them, and when that’s such a part of the landscape it’s no surprise if you develop a problem with ebooks. Hay is a monument to the physicality of the printed word, a place where Terry Pratchett’s concept of libraries bending the fabric of time and space could almost be true. If I ever have to rebuild civilisation, I’m heading to the nearest booktown when the batteries on my Kindle run out.

In the end, we didn’t buy that many books during our time in Hay-on-Wye. For me though something more important happened; I was inspired to keep blogging, to keep telling stories, to keep making sure I try to put the stuff I learn out there, into a public space. After all, that’s what all those writers represented on the shelves of Hay wanted to do, and now they sit there, happy, given a second lease of life by the spiritual home of all Britain’s bibliophiles.

PS. Should have mentioned this originally, but Hay-on-Wye is twinned with Timbuktu in Mali. during its golden age the city was a centre of Islamic scholarship but now, facing desertification and poverty, it’s facing a desperate struggle to save its ancient historical documents from extremists. Another wrinkle on the preservation of knowledge.

The Olympics Opening Ceremony

Well that was unexpected.

I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a cynic about London 2012, not so much of the Games themselves but because of the pseudo-Orwellian manoeuvring that’s being done to protect the ‘brand’.

Fortunately that wasn’t much in evidence last night. What we got instead, thanks to Danny Boyle, was an insane, surreal and strangely moving portrait of Britain. I went from cynic to believer within 20 minutes.

Part of what made it work so well was the ambiguity. A pastoral idyll is supplanted/wiped out by the forces of technological progress, Isambard Kingdom Brunel effectively presiding over the Scouring of the Shire, ‘Jerusalem’ acting as both England’s unofficial national song and a cry for social reform. The ceremony raised questions, which isn’t normal for this sort of thing. Suddenly the whole event became a lot more interesting by focusing on the interplay between communities.

That extended throughout the proceedings, even in the frankly bizarre interlude in which Daniel Craig stands in Buckingham Palace, an elderly woman seated with her back to him. “Haha!” we say, “It’s a lookalike of the Queen meeting James Bond!”

Except it wasn’t.

It was the actual Queen.

Who later appeared to jump out of a helicopter with a Union Jack parachute.

I swear those five minutes did more for the monarchy than the entirety of the Jubilee celebrations. By participating in – rather than being a bemused spectator of – a pop culture spectacle, the Queen entered into the day-to-day life of the the country somehow, through a conversion between high society and ‘low’ culture.

But she still managed to remain above things. Other moments seem deliberately pointed at the country’s current ruling class. Royalties from Peter Pan have always gone to Great Ormand Street hospital, so it was a piece of genius to celebrate both children’s literature and the NHS at the same time. Monsters pursue kids through a hospital at night, but those monsters are defeated by the forces of good, which include the NHS, the concept of providing healthcare on the basis of need rather than ability to pay.

The Government are currently dismantling this concept. The opening ceremony effectively attacked this policy. Like I said, things were getting interesting.

Even the celebration of British music focused mainly on the way in which it has brought communities together – that’s why it was part of a narrative that also celebrated social media and multi-ethnic relationships. It’s probably worth noting that some of the bands and songs featured here were considered controversial in their day; I suspect that was deliberate too.

I think that’s why many of us recognised Britain in the spectacle – sure it covered all the theme park aspects of the country, but they were presented in a dynamic way, conversing and interacting with each other, just as they do in everyday life. And it worked.

So congratulations Danny Boyle. You played a blinder. And rule Britannia!

HSBC, the Olympics and the State of the UK

You know how the last couple of years have exposed a vast amount of corruption and arrogance in the UK’s institutions? You know how each new revelation just makes things worse? Well, we all need to put aside our scandal fatigue for a moment, cos tjis one’s an absolute doozy:

HSBC works with Mexican drug cartels.

Yes, seriously.

But hey, someone’s resigned and they face a big fine, so that’s okay then.

The report notes that a US senator said that all the recent financial scandals seem to emanate out of London. It’s not surprising – we live in a country where if you screw up multi-million pound government contracts you get rewarded with more multi-million pound government contracts, and where, if you get caught doing something criminal to the world economy, you get to walk away with a massive pay-off rather than, say, going to jail.

Meanwhile, chip shops get criminalised and the disabled get demonised and the public sector gets slashed (even though we’re now reliant on the public sector to make up for the failings of the private sector in, for instance, providing security for the Olympics.

There’s absolutely nothing inspirational about all this. It’s all “I don’t recall” and “In hindsight that was wrong” and a network of connections that implicate politicians and CEOs in a giant, accidental conspiracy. They can’t even act like the Illuminati without screwing it up.

And yet this defines the story – do something spectacularly wrong and get away with it, with your slap on the wrist being accompanied by a severance package in the millions. It erodes trust and moral leadership, it widens the gulf between rich and poor and it twists our social narrative – why not nick an iPad from PC World?

Because it’s wrong. nick an iPad, pay the consequences. But that means if you help a drug cartel – a drug cartel – you need to pay the price for that. If you give tacit support to Mexican drug lords and al Qaeda you’re not just talking about “a failure in compliance”, you’re talking about decapitated journalists and suicide bombings. I hope our leaders remember this when making speeches about the scourge of drugs. When paying tribute to the next British soldier to fall in the line of duty.

It won’t happen, of course, because this amoral attitude now seems to be an intrinsic part of life. Even something like the Olympics, which should be about celebrating heroic athletic achievement now seems to be about making as much money as possible. Look at the brand police and the attempts at controlling language and Orwellian websites to help us report copyright infringement among our neighbours. It’s why I’m growing to despise the Games and they haven’t even started yet; they should be something great and positive but instead they feel like the decline of western civilisation in a tracksuit.

I just want my country back.

The NHS On The Brink?

For as long as I’ve been alive, the NHS has been there. It’s such a fundamental part of British life that it’s near impossible to imagine life without it. Sure, sometimes it wobbles but having free-at-the-point-of-need healthcare is, literally, a lifesaver.

That’s why it’s difficult for someone of my generation to remember that the NHS hasn’t always been here or, more crucially, that it may not always be here in the future.

The NHS is under threat, like other public sector institutions I naively believed to be intrinsic parts of British society, like libraries and the BBC. It’s facing creeping privatisation, and yet the outcry is muted – perhaps it’s because the NHS has a sense of scale and permanence that political leaders don’t. It’s that optimism that could cost us dearly.

Anyway, to show why I’m worried, here are a few links, many of them curated by astrophysicist Marcus Chown, who’s on something of a Twitter crusade to save the NHS:

How The Coalition Carved Up The NHS, an article from the Independent.

Insurance industry urged to prepare for the end of free NHS primary care.

“People Will Die” – The End Of The NHS (part 1)

“People will die” – The End Of The NHS (part 2)

A letter to Care UK (funny but tragic in its implications).

Save Our NHS Petition.