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Sunday, 27 November 2016

Polluted Snow

I came across this image online at :

click to enlarge

It is reminiscent of my childhood in Leeds.    Falling snow was then, as now, magical.   The dirty old city of Leeds, overnight usually, was blanketed in pure white.   These days the magic remains, visually at least.   There may be traffic chaos, especially in and around London but the stuff stays white for days and possibly weeks, topped up and refreshed from time to time.

Not so in my childhood.   I am talking the 1950s.   Coal was king.  Fog was smog.   Blowing your nose into a white handkerchief was an experience.

Something was seriously wrong with the air we were all breathing.   The Yorkshire Evening Post frequently carried letters from an enigmatic correspondent 'Fresh Air - Shadwell' who turned out to be a chest physician.   The constant message of those letters was that the very air we all breathed was killing us.   What nonsense we thought.   Air was air and reality was reality.   We had to be warm in winter.   The very fabric of the city was black - the buildings long term and the snow very soon after falling.

Leeds was not special.   It was typical - of towns and cities throughout the land and throughout the industrialised world.

It was not the age for people to be concerned about the environment.   Fresh Air - Shadwell was to the 1950s in Leeds what Mrs Mary Whitehouse was to later decades.   Google her if you must.

My faltering career aspirations took me into the mortuary of St James' Hospital in Leeds during  holiday jobs as a hospital porter.   Porters were not over keen on 'carry-outs' as they were called.   Not me.   I was curious and fascinated by the situation.   On the North side of 'Jimmy's' there were wards upon wards of patients in what were then called Nightingale wards asleep, agape, awaiting their ends.

There had to be more to life, and death, than that.

On day shifts I would hang around in the mortuary, declare my interest in medicine, and be allowed to witness post mortems.   Many of them.   They were pretty routine and mainly involved slicing up vital organs to observe abnormalities.   Two of the organs stick in my mind - the brain and the lungs.   The brain often yielded an immediate and obvious cause of death.   The lungs less so.   What was blindingly obvious about the lungs was their colour.   What should have been pink was black.   Very black.   Oozing black ink or so it seemed.   'Leeds lung' I remember a pathologist calling it.  Of course, smoking, then routine, was a factor but for everybody - simply everybody - was the inescapable reality that the very air we breathed contributed to 'Leeds lung'.    Nobody, but nobody, was immune.

Clean air legislation, regarded by many at the time as cranky, was enacted.   Smokeless zones came about and, eventually the coal industry itself shut down, amidst political upheaval and social unrest which rumbles on to this day.

The fact is that nowadays, when it snows it eventually goes.   Without the seemingly weeks of miserable and increasing depressing blackness of my childhood.

I have mentioned smog.   That, for us, is a thing of the past but not so the world over.   Smoke amalgamated with the water droplets in the air which weathermen nowadays call fog.   The result was a yellowish dense ground level cloud of an intensity nowadays unimaginable.   There used to be an expression 'You could not see you hand in front of your face'.   Well, not quite;  but nearly.   In daylight hours life went on but when darkness fell the expression became true.   Movement was impossible without lights - street lights, torches or vehicle headlights.   In Leeds the only reliable vehicles were the trams.   They ran on rails and did not need steering.   Their drivers could navigate as if by instinct.   The dips in the line and the points were their clues to location.

My school was near the centre of Leeds and my usual way home was on the bus.   In the most severe smog I can remember the buses were abandoned.   I contacted my father, whose job was in the middle of Leeds.   We met at the car park where his car was parked, more by feel than sight.   He drove and I walked ahead, my torch pointing backwards towards the car.   I followed the tram tracks all along York and Selby Roads  to home in Halton, my school scarf wrapped around my mouth and nose.   At major junctions there were policemen, lit by flares, wearing white coats, directing what little traffic that was moving.

When we got home, hours late, we settled down in front of a hugely welcome coal fire . . . .

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