A Century of Smog

dark satanic mills

The poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’- now universally known as ‘Jerusalem’ and used as an improvised national anthem of England at many sporting events – contains one stark line that evokes vivid memories of my childhood in the industrial north. Like many thousands of kids I grew up ‘among those dark Satanic mills’ of Blake’s poem and thought nothing of it although as a ten-year-old I wondered why Blake had singled out the cotton mills as abodes of the devil when almost every other building in the town was also pitch black. Even the church and the vicarage.

A century of unremitting pollution, soot, poisonous chemicals and a lethal blend of ignorance and total indifference on the part of mill owners and town hall worthies had combined to coat the huddled terraces, the municipal buildings, the library, churches, and every garden wall in Darwen, my home town, with a layer of deeply ingrained black muck. Smoke from the coal fires of every home mingled on high with the black clouds belching from dawn till dusk from every mill chimney to form a poisonous pyrogenous curtain.

But an oft-repeated saying seemed to justify and exonerate the mill owning perpetrators whose businesses made a not insignificant contribution to the bronchial problems of their employees. ‘Where there’s muck there’s money.’ Blackburn, the nearest large town, seemed aptly named because black was the predominant feature of the place. The sprawling terraces, shops, public buildings and even the statues of Gladstone and Queen Victoria on the Boulevard were coated in grime. There were outlying hamlets called Blackamoor and Blacksnape. By the same childish logic Blackpool, an endless rash of pebble-dashed Accrington brick, should have been called Redpool.

The chance of contacting some form of lung infection or breathing disorder seem to increase the further from the coast you lived. People in heavy industry towns such as Huddersfield, Sheffield, Leeds, Oldham and Halifax existed under a permanent sullen brown-tinged cloud and sometimes never saw the sun for weeks on end. Smog, a poisonous mixture of fog, smoke soot, carbon and a lethal concoction of toxic chemicals cloaked town centres for weeks and killed scores of people.

But despite, or perhaps because of, the unrelenting stranglehold of amorphous carbon there was a fierce determination endemic among working class families to keep their nebulous and impecunious foothold in the community as neat and tidy as humanly possible.

In the north of my boyhood grass and weeds were not allowed to intrude into the cracks that separated the stone flags that formed the pavements outside every terrace. Housewives diligently scrubbed the front step every week and applied a coating of donkey stone –usually obtained from a vociferous rag-andboneman- with artistic care before issuing stern instructions not to put a foot on the step until the artwork had dried. Backyards were swilled in cold water and sash windows gleamed for a day or two with a spotless brilliance that proclaimed the cleaner’s pride.

‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ was another oft-repeated saying.

Homes that could boast a small front garden with a cast-iron rail invariably had a privet hedge that had to be meticulously clipped at regular intervals. Now a privet hedge is a curious throw-back to a distant era: the age of wireless accumulators, itinerant knife-grinders, street singers, and that other relic of bygone days- a regular weekly dustbin collection. It was a time when men wore raincoats, women wore skirts and you could sample roast potatoes from a cart pulled by a downcast donkey and devour hot black pudding from a stall on the open market.

Nowadays anyone attempting to sell such innocent delights would be persecuted and prosecuted out of existence by the ‘Elf and Safety and Food Hygiene stasi. Strangely I never heard of anyone dying from food poisoning after sampling such wares.

The Second World War changed many things. Not only the boundaries of Europe but civic attitudes. The slogan ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ which appeared in the 1950s was a sad reflection on the attitude of a growing population that appeared to be totally indifferent to social responsibilities or common niceties. Litter louts, the brainless spawn of a feckless society, abounded, scattering chip papers, cardboard cartons, plastic cups and take-away food receptacles with the careless abandon of wedding guests showering confetti. ‘There are Council workers employed to sweep up, it’s their job’ was a typical response to anyone brave enough to question this odious form of anti-social mindlessness.

Today it is almost impossible to stroll around the centres of many former industrial towns without encountering the deleterious debris discarded by these moronic legions. Empty beer cans rattle in gutters, pavements are coated with discarded chewing gum, plastic shopping bags festoon the hedges of country lanes…the list is endless.

The questionable decision made by many authorities to get rid-on economic grounds – of waste collection sites has had a serious effect, not only on basic hygiene but on the appearance of some towns.

With no ‘dump’ within a reasonable distance the back lanes behind the rows of many terraced houses have become depositories for rotting mattresses, soiled sofas and the detritus of a maladjusted minority who seem quite content to exist in a cesspit of squalor. It’s no coincidence that rat infestation has soared in the last twenty years.

Which brings another oft-repeated old saying to mind. Something about ‘Being as happy as a pig in…’

by Alan Whittaker

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