Smog: a chapter from a book that I might be writing

Everyone in this house seems to be writing a book, so here’s a fragment from something that I am working on. Maxwell is the adult protagonist, and The Boy is his younger self. The Boy is really me, which is probably fairly obvious, but because he is in the third person, I don’t need to be strict with those facts that I can’t quite remember.

Earliest memories. Fragmented but vivid. The first: a trip to America aboard an ocean liner.

The Queen Elizabeth had two funnels, each painted Cunard red with a black stripe around the top. It was 1958 and The Boy was nearly four years old. He had never seen anything so vast. He was running around on the foredeck with a group of kids. The wind was blowing up from the stern of the ship and his parents were sitting on a bench in front of the bridge, sheltering from the wind. The ship rushed forward towards New York.

There was a railing around the front of the deck and he ran up there to look. The other kids had run off. He decided to go back to his parents, but he found he couldn’t move. The wind had pinned him to the railing. He called out but the wind blew his voice away.

After what seemed like a long time The Boy’s father looked up and noticed, ran along the deck. As he swept The Boy up in his arms, his father’s specs blew off his face and sailed away over the ocean. The image is sharp and bright in Maxwell’s mind, 53 years later. Clear blue sky, clear blue water, specs flying away to infinity.

Parents seemed to be big people who knew everything. His father towered over him and his hands were vast. If Maxwell got a mess on his face, his father would produces a giant handkerchief, get Maxwell to dampen it with his tongue, and dab away at his face, roughly, until it was clean.

Many years later Maxwell found a photo of his parents, sitting in the state room of the RMS Queen Elizabeth. The surroundings were grand, with wood panelling and white tablecloths and heavy cutlery. The parents were dressed in their best clothes. They were children. They were lost. Intrepid children, traveling the world with young kids.

The ship was a warren of corridors and wood paneling and portholes and stairways. It was a vast floating hotel. Then, more people traveled by ship to New York than flew. Within a few years, it was all over. When Maxwell was small, people traveled by sea, and by train and bus. The trains were powered by steam. The homes were heated by open coal fires. The buildings were black from the soot. Sometimes in the late autumn, when the kids were let out of school, there was smog.

Thick grey smog that choked you when you breathed in so you had to hold your scarf over your face and breathe through it. You couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you. There were oil lamps burning with an open yellow flame, to mark the edge of the pavement. The smog was caused by the smoke from the coal that people burned in their fireplaces. It was considered normal.

Maxwell wonders how people had allowed this to happen. It reminded him of a Tel he had visited somewhere in Israel. A vast mound of earth with steep sides and the remains of an ancient village on the top. Centuries of habitation, of chucking stuff out the window, of building a new house on top of the rubble of the old house had resulted in people living on top of a man made hill maybe 200 or 250 feet high. Didn’t they ever look out of the window and notice that they were living on a pile of garbage?

When they came back from America, his parents moved into a first floor flat in a grand, converted house. At the side of the house, there was a tennis court, behind which was a summer house.

To the rear was a full sized greenhouse, more garden and a little wood at the back. There was even a gardener. For the four years that they lived there, The Boy and his friends had the run of this garden.

Each winter morning, his mother would get up and make a coal fire. In the evenings they would roast chestnuts in a shovel in the fire, or toast crumpets held in a toasting fork. The fire would crackle and pop, flames would dance, and later it would settle to a deep red glow. Maxwell’s father taught him to play chess with this as the backdrop. There was no TV, and the radio was in the kitchen. In the evening the family would be in the lounge, all together, in front of the fire. There was a deep peacefulness about it. They would read, play games, do crosswords.

Every so often a chimney sweep would come. He would place a large white sheet around the fireplace. He had a disk shaped brush on the end of a rod which he pushed up the chimney, screwing on extension rods as he fed it upwards. Vast piles of soot would fall down the chimney. Thinking about it, Maxwell’s mind boggles: “This was just the stuff that was left behind! Just think how much shit was blown up into the atmosphere!”

On the way home from school The Boy would walk over the footbridge that ran through the station. If he was lucky a steam train would whoosh under the bridge with all the racket and steam and smoke everywhere. Even now Maxwell couldn’t think of many things more exciting to watch.

If you ever rode on a train, it smelled of coal smoke. It was ingrained in the fabric of the seats. The carriages were maroon, and had slam doors. Inside there was a corridor down one side, and the carriages were divided into compartments with 3 or 4 seats facing in each direction, and, opening onto the corridor, a sliding door with a glass window. There was a lever to control the heating which never seemed to work. The people within huddled into a little community. The rails clattered and the engined puffed and smoked.

The smell of coal smoke pervaded Maxwell’s young life. Then the Clean Air Act began to take effect. They cleaned all the buildings, which turned out to be golden colored stone, and not black after all.

After, whenever he smelled coal smoke, Maxwell would become nostalgic. His brain had linked this foul pollution to many of his happiest memories.

Sometimes they would board a bus to visit relatives at the other end of the city. The bus would drive past the shells of buildings that had been bombed in the war. The war had finished 15 years before but it was everywhere. The kids in the school played war games where the bad guys were the Gerrys. The Boy, always curious, couldn’t work out what the war had been about, and why, if the Germans were so evil, did his parents play records on the turntable, records by Germans like Bach and Beethoven?

In the flat there was a telephone. To make a call, you would lift the receiver, and a voice would chime out “operator,” and you would ask the operator for the number that you wanted. She would sing “putting you through.” She would plug in a patch cable that connected your line to the line of the number you were calling. If you were calling a different exchange in the same city, she would connect a cable to that exchange’s line, and ask the operator over there to put the call through in the same way.

Maxwell boggles to think how much the world has changed in his lifetime. His nephew once said: “Maxwell, I didn’t know you were alive in the olden days!” They all used to laugh about that, but now it’s obvious that the kid was right.

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