Archive for November, 2008

A Proper Pea-Souper – The Terrible London Smog of 1952

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008
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A nether sky of fog…

 

The model Julie Harrison

The model Julie Harrison

On Saturday 6 December 1952 the performance of La Traviata at Sadler’s Wells was abandoned at the interval. The incessant coughing of the audience had become intolerable due to the dense ‘pea-souper’ smog which had been slowly creeping into the auditorium making the stage almost invisible to the people who had sat further back.

Further west across London the greyhound racing at White City was halted when the dogs couldn’t see the hare, and reportedly a Mallard duck flying blindly across London smashed into Victoria station and crash-landed onto platform 6.

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Before the dense fog had enveloped London the weather for the previous few weeks had been colder than normal. Houses throughout the capital, in those pre-central heating days, were burning large amounts of coal in a million fires and stoves – all of which were emitting a particulate-ridden sulphurous acidic smoke.

Although it had been cold, the weather had been relatively fresh and clear but by Thursday 4 December the conditions began to worsen. The breezes stopped and the skies became greyer and the atmosphere noticably dank.

By the next day the whole city had started to appear like a scene from Dickens’ Bleak House:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city…Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

The Fog on that Friday morning was thicker than anyone could remember even by people who had long considered the London smog just another aspect of living in the capital. Incidentally the portmanteau smog was coined only forty five years earlier, by HA Des Voeux, who first used it in 1905 to describe the conditions of fuliginous (sooty) fog that occurred all too often in the capital city.

The unpleasant impermeable fogs had been a feature of London for centuries and it wasn’t just Dickens who wrote about, as he would call it, the London Particular. Descriptions of the London fogs can be found in the Sherlock Holmes’s stories and in Louis Stephenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The mythical quality of the London fog was reflected in practically any Hollywood film set in London even many years after the era of the London ‘pea-soupers’ had past. Indeed the great smog of 1952 was the beginning of the end of the eye-stinging London Particulars.

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By nightfall on Friday 5 December the smothering fog thickened and visibility in most of London dropped to a few metres. During the next day, the sun was too weak and low in the sky to make much of an impression on the fog and that night, and on the Sunday and Monday nights, it again thickened. In most of London, it was almost impossible for pedestrians, totally disorientated through lack of familiar landmarks, to find their way home.

Because of the dirt and the vile, clogging, unpleasant taste of the smog, many people held ‘masks’ of gauze, scarves or handkerchiefs to their faces. On the Isle of Dogs, almost surrounded by the Thames, visibility was occasionally reported to be nil – the fog was so dense that people could not see their own feet.

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Hospitals were soon filled with patients suffering from acute respiratory diseases and, almost un-noticed, deaths in the city began to mount. No one noticed at first until undertakers started to run out of coffins and florists were likewise running out of flowers. The very ill weren’t helped by ambulances, searching in vain for victims and clanging their bells frantically, unable to extricate themselves from the snail-paced traffic jams.

The London smog, compared with a normal fog or even other urban smogs, was especially lethal because it contained high quantities of sulphur oxides (from the cheap sulphurous coal) that reacted with the moisture in the air to produce a dilute, but lung-corrosive, sulphuric acid mist. The killer brew, to some people, triggered massive inflammation of the lungs – in other words thousands of people died almost through suffocation.

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The British Committee on Air Pollution finally estimated that during the five days that the smog smothered London, there were 4,000 more deaths than would have occurred under normal circumstances and during the next two months there were another 8,000 deaths caused by a direct result of the killer smog. Even during the next summer the death rate was 2% higher than normal.

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Legislation followed the Great Smog of 1952 in the form of the City of London (Various Powers) Act of 1954 and the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968. These Acts banned emissions of black smoke and decreed that residents of urban areas and operators of factories must convert to smokeless fuels.

Nothing on the scale of the 1952 Great Peasouper has ever occurred again and it remains the nation’s worst single air pollution disaster. There has been an astonishing hundredfold reduction in atmospheric particulate levels in London over the last fifty years and the air, in most respects, is cleaner in the capital city than at any other time since the middle ages.

British Government film from the late 1940s about the dangers of pollution.

The Pogues – Misty Morning, Albert Bridge
Frank Sinatra – A Foggy Day In London Town
Johnny Mathis – Misty
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Islington, Elton John and Long John Baldry

Friday, November 14th, 2008
“It’s absurd, you don’t really love her. You’re just a damned fool!”

In a basement flat on the corner of Liverpool Road and Furlong Road in Islington, the freshly monikered Elton John (to his friends and even himself it was still Reg) lived with his writing partner Bernie Taupin and his fiancé Linda Woodrow. On the 7th June 1968 Elton had written to an old school friend writing “Just a few lines to let you know I am getting married on 22nd June at Uxbridge Registary (sic) offices … Well if you think it’s a bit sudden you’re right. Seeing as we were living together we thought as well get married. Nothing much happening record-wise because I’ve got problems with my record company at the moment. Reg.”.


Only a week or so before Elton wrote the invite, Bernie and Linda were both having a an afternoon nap in their Furlong Road flat. Linda recalled ‘I came out of my room and Bernie came out of his, both thinking we’d heard a noise. We went into the kitchen, and there was Elton lying with his head in the the gas oven.’

Bernie quickly pulled Elton away from the oven fearing the worst but soon noticed that the gas was only turned to ‘low’ and the kitchen window was wide open. Elton had even thoughtfully placed a cushion in the oven to make his suicide attempt slightly more comfortable and in the end Linda merely remarked that it was just a waste of good gas.


Although the suicide attempt hardly seemed wholehearted it was nevertheless a cry of help from a man who was getting more and more confused and upset about his life. He was actually in a deep depression about his career, the failure of his first single and the continued false dawns and disappointments trying to sell his and Bernie’s songs. He was also coming to terms about his sexuality although up to then it didn’t really occur to anyone not least himself that he was anything but heterosexual. The lack of interest in women was just seen as a symptom of his shyness.


Towards the end of 1967 Dwight announced to the surprised members of Bluesology, a band led by the tall 6ft 7 inch singer Long John Baldry and for which he played keyboards, that he had ‘pulled a bird’. Bluesology had played at a nightclub called Fiesta in Sheffield and watching the band was a very short man who called himself The Mighty Atom, a DJ at the local Locarno ballroom, accompanied by a skinny blonde girl called Linda. The Mighty Atom apparently drove around town in a white E-Type Jaguar with wooden risers on the pedals and they must have made an odd couple as Linda was just shy of six feet.

Linda and Reg quickly found a lot in common and she travelled around with him for the last few dates of the Bluesology tour. At the end of the tour, just before Christmas 1967, Reg announced that he was leaving the band. Although Elton had been getting more and more frustrated about not being able to sing, it hadn’t helped that Baldry had just got to number one with the syrupy ballad ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’ – when he sang the hit a backing track was used and the rest of the band had to stand around doing nothing but looking suitably morose. Before Reg parted company he asked politely if he could borrow parts of Elton Dean, the saxophonist, and Long John Baldry’s names to re-name himself Elton John.

Linda and Elton found a basement flat in Furlong Road and Bernie Taupin soon moved in with them in the spare room. Linda was heiress to the Epicure Pickle company could live off a comfortable trust fund. Philip Norman, Elton’s biographer wrote that Elton had begun his affair with Linda “in the spirit of a non-swimmer, plunging headlong with eyes shut and fingers pinching nose, hoping that, if he went straight in at the deep end, everything would somehow sort itself out”.

Elton's first photo-shoot in 1968

Elton's first photo-shoot in 1968

It of course didn’t and in June 1968, three weeks before the proposed wedding, Elton was having a drink with Long John (who was to be Best Man) and Bernie at the Bag O’ Nails club in Kingsly Street where they both tried to dissuade him from the marrying Linda. Bernie remembered that Baldry, by then an unrepentant’out’ gay man, went on at Elton all evening – ‘It’s absurd, you don’t love really love her, you’re just being a damned fool…’. Almost certainly Baldry pointed out a few things about Elton’s sexuality that he might not been entirely aware of. Although Elton has since written “I cannot believe I never realised that he was gay. I mean, I didn’t realise I was gay at that time, but looking back on it now, John couldn’t have been any more gay if he tried”.

Long John Baldry on Top Of The Pops 1968

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Long John Baldry, although to his many fans after the success of ‘Heartaches’ wouldn’t have had a clue, was as flamboyantly ‘out’ to his friends as it was possible to be in 1968. Which possibly shows Elton’s innocence at the time but it has to be noted that homosexuality had only been legal in the UK for less than a year. Baldry had become rich (for a short time) from the number one hit and was leading a very hedonistic life in 1968, often attending the non-stop party at the home of Oliver composer Lionel Bart, who shared his interest in young men – the age of consent for gay men at the time was, of course, twenty-one.

Baldry’s sister Margaret does not go into detail, but does reveal that “some of them were very young. John was blackmailed on a couple of occasions. I used to meet a lot of these young guys who were way beyond their years, and they were clearly out to get his money.”

Baldry at the hairdresser John Stephen in Carnaby Street 1968

Baldry at the hairdresser John Stephen in Carnaby Street 1968


By the time the Bag O’ Nails closed Baldry, Elton and Bernie were joined by PJ Proby and also Cindy Birdsong from The Supremes, all acting as celebrity agony aunts and telling him that it was wrong to marry Linda.

PJ Proby

At four in the morning, and drunk, Bernie and Elton trudged back to Furlong Road. Elton was determined to finish the relationship and that night he did just that. ‘All hell broke loose’ according to Bernie with Linda pretending that she was pregnant and that she would commit suicide in the hope that Elton would change his mind. All to no avail.

In the morning Elton called his mother and in a few hours a van drew up outside the Furlong Road flat driven by his stepfather Derf Farebrother. In less than an hour Elton, Bernie and their respective record collections made the journey back to Elton’s family home at 30a Frome Court, Northwood Hills. Bernie and Elton were still sharing bunk beds at his old family home eighteen months later. Elton by then a huge star.



Long John Baldry, immortalised as Sugar Bear in Elton’s song ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ never repeated the success of ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’. However he will always be remembered as instrumental in the birth of British blues and a link between black American blues and British rock. Other than Elton John he played with Mick Jagger before the Rolling Stones existed, went to school with Charlie Watts where they started a Jazz and Blues appreciation society and he famously found an 18 year old Rod Stewart singing a version of John Lee Hooker’s Dimples on the platform at Twickenham station.


Brian Auger and Trinity with LJB and Rod Stewart 1965

LJB 1973
After recording a relatively successful album in 1971 called ‘Take It Easy’, a side each produced by the now very famous Elton and Rod Stewart, Baldry moved to Canada in 1978 where he recorded sporadically including a record called ‘Out’ which could either have been about his sexuality or that he had recently been released after being institutionalised due to mental health problems. He died of a severe chest infection in 2005. It was always difficult for Baldry to accept that he was more well-known for who he knew and who had played in his bands than for his music.

Linda Woodrow (now Hannon) lives in America and seemingly still bitter about Elton John and the, it has to be said, slightly misogynistic and one-sided ‘Someone Saved My Life’. Making up for not marrying Elton in 1968 she has since married four times.

The Mighty Atom has now sensibly reverted back to his real name Chris Crossley and is now an artist in Brincliffe, Sheffield.

The Mighty Atom today

Reg's erstwhile fiance Linda Woodrow in 2007

Linda Woodrow and The Mighty Atom today

Two messages, received on 5th December 2008, from Linda Woodrow or Hannon as she is today.
I am very curious as to where you got all the information about me. Some of it is correct and some is not. You need to find out the truth before you go printing things about me.

Linda Hannon

There are many stories about Reg putting his head in the gas oven. In most of them I was to blame, however Reg was going through a very frustrating time with his music. He was then recording at the Dick James studio. I used to sit there many evenings while he played his music. At that time he was only earning approx. 100 pounds a week or less, it is true that I did take care of both him and Bernie financially. I didn’t realize at the time that he was bi-sexual. I think he used to fantasize after John Baldry. Reg had been out with both John and Bernie when they came home very drunk and Reg informed me that he was leaving. It was definitely John who told him not to get married. I cared very much for Reg and had really hoped for a future with him. At that time I never imagined that he would become such a huge star.
Linda


Someone Saved My Life Tonight – Elton John
Don’t Try And Lay Down No Boogie Woogie – Long John Baldry
It Ain’t Easy – Long John Baldry
Empty Sky – Elton John
Dimples – John Lee Hooker
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