Thursday Connectors: Worlds Apart: Then And Now
By Farzana Hakim
Hi all, it’s Farzana, your host for this month’s Thursday Connectors, with some fantastic writers who all have wonderful stories to share.
I’m particularly looking forward to these because they are reflecting back on times that are no longer here. The world our elders belonged to seems so far away now that, whenever we hear or look back on how things were then, we’re often left in awe or bewilderment.
Being a historian, I love these connections into our pasts, which is why I’m super-delighted with our theme of ‘Worlds Apart’. And what better connections can we make than to compare the world as it was back then with how it is now!
Our first Connector, Tavinder New, looks at nature to explore this perspective.
Hi, Tavinder. Let’s connect:
Trees, A Blast Of The Past
The trees hold a blast of the past, within their rings of eras gone by. They stood here before me or you, all holding the memories of those years. These trees have special meaning as I sit here leaning. I think of Sir Isaac Newton, who came up with his theory, as he was weary, so he sat here under a similar tree and, like magic, the apple came and placed him in fame.
The trees hold a blast of the past; within their leaves, I feel nature achieves its seasons of wind, rain, sunshine, or snow. They gave someone solace, as I think of Anne Frank, whose Chestnut Tree offered her comfort in her discomfort, as it does for me. It placed her diary in our history to learn of her trials but she held a smile.
The trees hold a blast of the past, as they can give us hope where there may be no scope. I think of a pear tree, where a memorial survives when 9/11 hit and split the nation, but the tree remained intact. It is standing tall and proud giving a contrast of survival and resilience to us all.
The trees hold a blast of the past, within them is a foundation where nations are born; their vines travel far and wide, intertwining where they join us together under Mother Nature. The air is clean and green because of this tree, and it gives such a beautiful scene, protecting me and you as I sit and watch the world go by.
© Tavinder New, 2020
What a great piece of writing! Thanks for sharing it, Tavinder.
Next up is Connector Eithne, our editor of Thoughtful Tuesdays, who shares memories of her mother from her own childhood.
Hi, Eithne. Let’s connect:
My mother was a great one for sayings and left us (sometimes puzzled) with some gems. I think her love of reading, words and story-telling has influenced me very much in my own love of all words and language.
Once, in a work meeting with an outside speaker, I remarked: “It’s all before you, like the fellow with the wheelbarrow, as my mother used to say…” The speaker looked at me and said “Oh, what part of Dublin did your mother come from?” It turned out his mother was also from Dublin and had many sayings like hers.
She told all kinds of stories about her own childhood, which we enjoyed hearing, again and again. And we loved it when our own childhood memories turned up in the tales.
Sometimes she’d tell a story about something that happened and laugh at it; even though she was telling it and we’d all probably heard it before. This one sticks in my mind and it really is about words and how we use them.
Travelling home from work in Central London, Mum witnessed this little scene: It was in the days of buses with conductors on the platform at the back. The bus was crowded and a tourist whose first language wasn’t English tried to board. The conductor said: “Come on, get off!” The man looked puzzled. The conductor said: “Come on, get off!” The man was even more puzzled. “Come on, get off!” he said again. The poor man was completely flummoxed, saying: “Do you want me to come on, or do you want me to get off?” The conductor saw the humour of this silly expression and, laughing, allowed the tourist to board.
Isn’t it funny how sometimes we use words in a confusing and puzzling way?
© Eithne Cullen, 2022
Thanks, Eithne, for sharing these memories with us.
Finally, we connect with Vic Howard, a former resident of Barking and Dagenham, who now lives in Sweden.
Hi, Vic. Let’s connect:
The Great Smog
The sixth of December 1952 is not a date that means much to most people. I remember it because it was the day I had to travel up to London to take a music exam at The Royal College Of Music. That sounds very grand, but it was a very low-grade exam. For 12,000 elderly Londoners, however, the days between 5th and 9th December 1952 were the last they lived. They were killed by smog: 12,000 in just four days. For comparison, consider the fact that, during the Blitz on London, it took the Nazis two months to kill off 43,000 Londoners.
I don’t know the smog casualty figures for Barking, but Barking was not spared smog; it was part of our lives every winter. Barking was, after all, the home of Europe’s largest coal-fired power station at River Road, Creekmouth. There were 17 tall chimneys on that building, belching out smoke day and night. Then there was Beckton Gas Works where coal was reduced to coke while producing the gas. Our housing estate was neatly placed between the power station and the gasworks. No wonder we never saw much of the sun, even on a summer’s day. Depending on the direction of the wind, it was either smoke from one or the other. The other compass points either brought the smell from the Northern Outfall Sewage Works, which was located just across the river Roding, or the whiff of vinegar from the Pickle Factory at the top of the road. It’s a wonder we made it to puberty.
Everyone had coal fires at home. Britain was then a major coal producer, but the best coal was exported to provide foreign currency to pay off the National Debt after the war. The railways took the best steam coal and what was left was sold to consumers. It did not burn well and smoked a great deal. A coal fire could look friendly and inviting once it got going, but nobody can pretend that it kept us warm. One room might stay warm during the evening if you kept the door shut while listening to ITMA or Monday Night At Eight on the wireless. That’s what we called the radio in those days. A coal fire was good for roasting chestnuts at Christmas and even toasting bread on the long toasting fork we kept beside the grate. The main contribution of coal, however, was to the dirty atmosphere and the dust that settled on the washing that hung on the lines in back gardens each Monday morning. Monday morning was always washing day. Greenhouse glass and conservatory roofs were turned black by the acid rain that etched the soot into them.
Barking’s coal reserves were stored at the coal depot beside the old railway station. From there it was delivered weekly or monthly by the coalman who carried each sack on his shoulder, through the house, and tipped it into the coal box that everyone had to keep behind the house. The light switch in our hall was replaced countless times due to it being hit regularly by the passing coal sacks. Mother always made sure that the empty sacks were piled on the ground outside the front door so that she could count them and not be cheated. Coalmen were not to be trusted – according to her. I must admit that a man whose face was covered in coal dust, who looked as though he had just come up from a coal mine, looked a lot less trustworthy than a clean, yodeling milkman in a striped apron; but maybe we shouldn’t judge by appearances. The coalman might not have been as bad as he was painted, but the coal he delivered certainly was. It was a killer.
For those of us who still had young lungs, smog was just an inconvenience. Breathing it was difficult, though. You wrapped a scarf around your head to try to filter out the smell and the acid taste, but that didn’t help much. It still gripped the back of your throat. That trip to London Mother and I made on the sixth December was long and eventful. For some reason that I can’t fathom, we went by bus rather than the underground railway, which would have been the more sensible route. The 23 bus from Barking through the East End, the City and the West End took hours. At several points we had policemen walking in front of the bus carrying flaming torches to guide the driver. At Oxford Circus, I remember, there were oil drums filled with burning wood on each corner pavement to show the way and perhaps clear the fog locally. They didn’t help much.
Hospital casualty wards could not cope with the casualties and undertakers ran out of coffins. These details were kept secret, however, and statistics were not published until 30 years after that weekend, because they were considered too terrible to be revealed. They also would have been a condemnation of the politicians, Harold Macmillan in particular, who had for years ignored warnings by scientists of the consequences of not taking action to clean up the air. Industrial production and exports were the priority, however, so people had to suffer the foul atmosphere and die breathing it.
It was another four years before the Clean Air Act was passed and several more years before it began to take effect. By then, I had become a driver. One evening, when attending the Technical College in Longbridge Road, I came out into thick, impenetrable smog. I had borrowed my dad’s car for the evening and had to drive it home. Since I was going to drive into Barking town, I thought it would be quite easy to drive out of the gate, turn left and follow the kerb all the way to town. How wrong I was. I drove out the gate and turned left, then lost sight of the kerb. I crept along until I suddenly felt a double bump under the car. I stopped and got out to discover I had driven onto the grass, on the other side of the very wide Longbridge Road, and I had stopped almost touching a tree that I couldn’t see from inside the car. That’s how easy it was to get lost in smog. Fortunately, I didn’t meet a bus on the way over. On another occasion, one evening, I managed to feel my way through the streets to the local phone box. Few people had phones in those days. I needed to phone my girlfriend to tell her I couldn’t drive over to see her. She gave me a terrible time, accusing me of not being sufficiently interested. Oh, how cruel you girls could be!
Gradually, the quality of air in Barking improved. The power station closed and is now demolished. And Beckton Gasworks’ destruction became a film set as Saigon during the filming of Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket. I survived the piano exam; perhaps by getting marks for making it to the door through the smog. The girlfriend eventually married somebody else, poor chap. Central heating and double glazing came to Barking and the coalman stopped damaging light switches.
As a footnote to the terrible atmosphere and pollution that once surrounded Barking, I would like to tell you about a neighbour of ours who was born and grew up in a house close to the asbestos factory that used to be located in the north of the town. She died, of course, just a few years ago at the age of 101. Old Barking residents are a hardy lot.
© Vic Howard, 2021
Thank you, Vic. I so enjoyed this interesting journey back in time. I grew up in east London and can relate to all the locations you speak of!
That’s it for this month. I’m off to the Dolomites in Italy for the summer for some adventure and relaxation, so hopefully, when I return in September, I’ll have lots to tell you. Oh, and please, everybody, pray our flights aren’t cancelled and we actually get to go! The travel situation is a nightmare here in the UK. Maybe you can all write in and tell me how your travel plans went.
Happy summer everyone!
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A neighbour of ours who was born and grew up in a house close to the asbestos factory died just a few years ago, at the age of 101. Old Barking residents are a hardy lot..