Category Archives: England

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…

St. George’s Day 2012

So. St. George’s Day.

I never know what to do with St. George’s Day, seeing as the guy was Palestinian and had nothing to do with England. But then maybe there’s something strangely English about that; we don’t like making a fuss about things, but we’ll talk about two world wars and one world cup forever more; we both invented and liberated concentration camps; we want a national saint, but we pick one that never got anywhere near our country. Being English is complicated.

It also doesn’t help that, for a good few years, our national iconography got co-opted by a bunch of neanderthal racists, making it vaguely unnerving to see England’s flag flying anywhere other than football matches. I know this is wrong, but it happened. Fortunately a sense of national pride has been reclaimed in recent years, which is a positive thing, and maybe in a couple of decades we’ll have something approaching St. Patrick’s Day. I wouldn’t like to make a prediction here – I’ve only ever actively tried to celebrate St. George’s Day once. We were in San Francisco, and we tried to find an English pub in which to celebrate. However, our taxi driver was unhelpful and we ended up in an Irish bar instead. Go figure.

We also share St. George with Spain, and I’ve got to say that I prefer some of Spain’s traditions for the day. For instance, in Catalonia, gifts of books are exchanged, which is something I’m always down with. Why do they give books? Well, it’s to remember that April 23 is also the birthday (and deathday) of that famous writer William Shakespeare. Who, of course, was English.

Yes, that’s right. On St. George’s Day, Spain has a tradition of commemorating England’s greatest writer. Meanwhile, England doesn’t. The whole thing’s messed up.

That’s also the reason today is World Book and Copyright Day, which I’m a little more inclined to celebrate. Only in the UK they moved it to March 1st this year because it clashes with our school holidays and, you’ve guessed it, St. George’s Day. The latter seems a strange decision to me, as I’d’ve thought England has produced enough famous writers to celebrate both books and the country that produced them, but never mind.

There’s another commemoration today – International Pixed-Stained Technopeasant Day, on which sci-fi writers are encouraged to post professional-quality work for free on the internet. Nothing to do with St. George’s Day, of course, but it’s worth noting that England has a fantastic science fiction heritage (H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Douglas Adams…), and the World Wide Web was invented by the English Tim Berners-Lee.

And talking of IT, today is also the 30th anniversary of the ZX Spectrum , one of the UK’s earliest home computers. I owned a couple of these during my formative years, a 48K with rubber keys and a 128K with a built in cassette player through which it took an age to load games… But it left a legacy among the country’s computing community, so maybe the humble Speccy is something else worth remembering today.

So yeah, I don’t know what I want from St. George’s Day. I want to be proud of my country – I am proud of my country, although not without reservations – but I’m not sure April 23rd helps me to do that. I suppose it’s just because I get most patriotic when I’m watching the Last Night of the Proms (ironically, my favourite part of that is ‘Jerusalem’, a song that tries to co-opt as a national treasure another notable Middle Eastern figure who never travelled here…). And the aspect of England that I most admire, that has moved me to tears in the past, is the underplayed, stiff-upper-lip, quietly defiant response to times of national tragedy. After terrorists bombed London in July 2005, the refusal to be beaten and the dry sense of humour on display was proof enough for me that England is still somewhere that can be admired.

Anyway, happy St. George’s Day. I’m going to have a cup of tea.


Snowpocalypse Now

Britain, Britain, Britain: Home of Churchill, Nelson, the Industrial Revolution, the winning team of the 1966 World Cup. Take a look on the back of a pound coin and what do you see? That’s right, a lion, rearing up to rend his enemies asunder.

(And also a unicorn, which is basically just a pointy horse. I don’t know what to do with that.)

And yet there’s something about our national character that falls apart when it snows. I mean, it’s not like we’re in the middle of the Sahara, where a few inches of snow would probably be an End Of The World portent. We’re a damp wet island where it snows once a year. There’s no excuse for this mass hysteria.

Okay, I’m aware this is a grumpy old man rant, but with good reason – I’ve just driven 40 miles through Snowmageddon and the weather wasn’t a problem. The real problem? Other people.

I mean, it’s wet, it’s dusk, but some drivers still seem to think that headlights give you hemorrhoids. Still, at least they compensate by driving up your exhaust pipe. You can’t help but see them when they obviously want to get intimate with the stuff in your boot. Letting the concept of stopping distances enter their lives would be nice.

And then there’s the guy who starting hitting his horn because, shock horror, I gave way to someone on my right at a roundabout. I appreciate I might have been able to sneak in, traversing a wet, snowy road as I did so; I’m also aware that there are things called ‘multi-car pile-ups’, which are very bad and take up the valuable time of the emergency services.

And don’t get me started on pedestrians. Especially the one wearing a big woolly hat and a tracksuit. This is the reason the UK is number one in Europe for people getting frozen alive in freak glaciers and defrosted in the future.

But I’m home safe and the central heating is on and no-one’s going to put me in hospital now.

Unless they drive into my living room whilst tailgating my house…

Becoming a City: The future of Dudley?

I may not be the most experienced traveller in the world, but I’ve seen my share of cities – the organised chaos of New York overseen by the Statue of Liberty; the disorganised chaos of Cairo, shadowed by the Pyramids. I was told about The Da Vinci Code by a hippy in San Francisco; I spent hours in the World’s Biggest Bookshop when on holiday in Toronto.

There’s a reason I mention this. It’s because I don’t live in a city. I never have. I live in a large town, or at least next to one. It’s not a city.


As part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee later this year, one town in Britain will be upgraded to a city; Dudley is one of 26 in the running for this. I’ll admit this surprised me – Dudley is less a large town with outlying suburbs, but a borough made up of a number of townships, each fairly distinct from the others. It’ll be interesting to see the outcome of this bid for city status – the resulting investment would be invaluable; the town needs it, and that’s not me being disparaging.

Dudley is a place that has always been on the fringes of history. Abraham Darby, one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution was born here; so was Robert Plant, and you can see Dudley’s tower block on the gatefold cover of Led Zeppelin IV, the album that gave Stairway to Heaven to the world. One of Manchester United’s ‘Busby’s Babes’, Duncan Edwards, was born in the town, becoming a victim of the Munich Air Disaster at the tragically young age of 21. We’ve had a castle since 1071 that was visited by Elizabeth I and involved in the intrigues of that era, especially those revolving around Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen.

Does this make Dudley a city? I don’t know. Traditionally, a city is meant to have a university and/or a cathedral, and Dudley doesn’t have either (although it’s developing a significant Learning Quarter, which is cool), but it turns out that’s not true – the monarch confers city status, nothing else. And so maybe it’s appropriate for Dudley to become a city – it’s the second biggest town in the country, according to Wikipedia, the largest town in the UK not to have its own university or league football club.

The problem is, when you think of a city, you think of somewhere like London or New York, a 24-7 environment full of stuff. That’s an unrealistic standard for any new city to have to live up to, and anyway, City Status isn’t about that – it’s about identity, and Dudley has that; you’ll learn that if you call the locals Brummies. Despite what you may think of the rest of the town, there’s something powerful about driving over the hill and seeing that castle rising on the horizon. The town has history.

So all the best Dudley, it’ll be interesting to see what the Jubilee brings. Hope it’s good news…



One Country, Two Worlds? Can we explain the riots?

I don’t think it’s being naive or ignorant to suggest that no-one really knows why there have been explosions of violence and looting throughout the UK over the last few days. At worst, some of the explanations put forward are facile; at best, the explanations that ring true feel incomplete, the key to the cypher missing and the reason for the riots remaining a terrifying enigma. It’s clear just from watching the news that this seems to be a war of two worlds; the problem is defining what those worlds are.

The most obvious explanation is that this is about the rich/poor divide, and it’s true that the majority of riots arose from poorer communities. This makes sense; throughout Britain’s poorer towns and cities are families experiencing third, even fourth generation ‘worklessness’, where low educational attainment combined with a lack of unskilled jobs have produced significant unemployment and all its attendant problems.

But wait – ask anyone working in regeneration and they’ll tell you that’s been the case for years. And for all there’s been condemnation of rampant criminality, as if the riots are being carried out by a subspecies of trolls who have emerged from their hiding place to threaten civilised humanity, we can’t ignore the fact that David Cameron and Boris Johnson have enjoyed, well, rampaging during their time with Oxford’s Bullingdon Club. Not quite the same as the recent riots, of course, but not all that different, and when you consider the number of impoverished people who didn’t riot, making this a rich/poor thing isn’t telling the whole story. After all, the riots were partly organised by Blackberrys and Twitter, if you can access these it’s debatable as to exactly how impoverished you are.

Ahh yes, technology. Hearing police and MPs discussing Twitter, Facebook and BBM was a slightly disconcerting experience. It’s not that there isn’t a conversation to be had about the role of technology in organising large groups of motivated people – look at the Arab Spring – but the way in which social networks were mentioned was, well, faintly antediluvian, like Marty McFly introducing rock and roll to the fifties a few years too early.

So maybe the two different worlds we’re talking about are those of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. After all, one MP wants Blackberry Messenger banned because it allows ‘unsophisticated’ criminals to ‘outfox’ the police. Of course, the proper response to this is to ask why the police are so incapable of responding to new technologies? Social Networking has been a part of life for a few years now, it’s time to get used to it, save we end up demonising Twitter users, like Barack Obama and National Treasure Stephen Fry.

Of course, let’s not kid ourselves, even those of us who are used to technology get confused by it. Back in the day, when I was at primary school, a rumour circulated that a gang from the local high school were going to come down and start bricking us all. It never happened, being a fairly standard urban myth that almost everyone has encountered at some time in some form or other. Yesterday Twitter was reporting rioting in a whole number of townships; most of this was rumour, getting out of control as people retweeted without confirming if their local Asda was really burning down. It was urban myth creation at the speed of broadband, and while it highlighted that reporting news is becoming increasingly social, citizen journalism could really do with checking its facts. Natives or Immigrants, we could all do with learning to curate the digital world. After all, native or not, it’s pretty stupid to pose on Facebook with a stolen PS3 and not expect the police to take a look.

What other factors? Race? No, communities seemed fairly well represented on both sides of the equation.

Police vs the Kids? Not an argument without merit, perceived or otherwise, but I wonder how many people rioting have even heard of Mark Duggan?

The Engaged vs the Disengaged? Well, define disengaged. While it might be fair to say the rioters aren’t exactly participating in their communities, it’s also true that senior politicians seemed reluctant to cut short their holidays while the capital burned, and still seem blissfully unaware of how badly the hacking scandal has tainted authority in this country. And how much respect would you have for the police if the only time you encountered them was when they were stopping and searching you for no good reason?

If I’m honest, it’s disengagement that rings most true to me – I could understand it just being criminality if rioters were looting other communities, but their own? Not fearing the police is one thing, but surely you’d think twice about reprisals from the bloke next door who owns the off licence you just looted. The whole thing looked like a bizarre, corporate form of self-harm – no, bear with me, some of the reasons for self-harm could be relevant on a corporate level – dissociation, lack of control, poverty, unemployment. But then some rioters say they’re having fun and just using the whole situation as an excuse to steal some new trainers, less a scream of repressed frustration, more an expression of greed. And it’s not easy to have sympathy for greed.

All of which is to say there aren’t any easy answers, and while it would be easy to blame Twitter or immigrants or a lack of hanging and flogging, it’s not that straight-forward. We know that, because whenever someone tries to explain the Weird UK Summer of 2011, they sound unfinished, or just plain wrong. I’m fully expecting the riots to stop as suddenly as they began, leaving us all blinking and muttering about mass hysteria and social contagion.

Perhaps this isn’t something we can’t explain, not without looking at every facet of England (and it seems to have been an English, not British thing so far). Are we prepared to stop and reflect and change to that extent? Or will we demonise and condemn and never quite figure out what went wrong during a very strange August weekend in London?