Adventure in the smog

During the Great Smog, which London remembers as a tragedy, a child walks the streets enjoying it as an adventure. (This story is based on the author's true recollections)

An ambulance and a police car burst out of the gloom making a really loud noise, with both their bells ringing. I was groping my way past the door of the big bank at the crossroads. The wall was cold and wet, but I needed it to feel my way round, because you couldn't see anything.

I'd heard the police car and ambulance coming down from Forest Hill making a funny muffled ring as if they were wrapped in coal sacks. I suppose the police were trying to help the ambulance get through the traffic. They needn't have bothered, because there weren't many cars on the road. I was up at the crossroads at Brockley Rise. where they'd set up a big flame in the middle of the road. It's called a flare, and it shows up in the fog better than the street lamps. It put out so much smoke that I think it was making the smog worse, but at least you could see it when everything else was almost invisible. The trams didn't need it, because they don't have to see where they were going. With their wheels in those rails they can't really go the wrong way. They were quieter than usual and didn't squeal when they went round the corner. You could just hear them rattling and shaking as they turned.

My Mum says there were a lot of ambulances around that day because people were collapsing in the streets. The newspapers called it "The Great Smog". The wireless called it a disaster, but I thought it was fun. School let us out early and I had a smashing adventure finding my way home, what with the ambulance and everything. I've seen fog before, but the smog was different. It was gooey and yellow and stuck to your face - not wet and misty-grey like normal fog. My Dad says it's smoke and fog mixed up together and that's why it's called "smog". I think it's a good name for something that smells so horrid. It's a bit like the stink you get by the gasworks. Smog gets up your nose and down your throat and makes it sting. Even so, I enjoyed the adventure.

The Headmistress sent one of the teachers round to our class to say we should go home early, before it got dark. Teacher said we must walk carefully and try to find a friend who was going the same way, but I went on my own. I got across the playground easily - I just aimed for the shadow where the boys' lavatories would be, and the gate's right beside them. When I got through the gate I turned right - the way I usually go - and felt along the wall with my hands. There was no policeman outside to help us cross because we weren't coming out at the usual time, but there weren't many cars anyway. The few cars that were out were going very slowly with their lights on, even though it was day. I couldn't see them very well, but I could hear a sort of humming noise when one was coming. If I waited for one of the motors to go past, I just had to step out behind it and walk straight ahead. I couldn't see the big white garage over the road, even though it was lit up. I could just see a glow from the oval bits on top of the pumps as I got near the pavement. I walked slower when I saw them and felt in front of me with my foot until I found the kerb. Then I put my hand out to touch the garage wall and went along close to the gardens so I knew I was well away from the edge. I didn't trip over.

A lady nearly fell over when she bumped into the horse trough by the pub. I could hear her coming from the other way, but I didn't see her until she got close. She was wearing a posh grey coat and had one of those long fur things round her neck - the ones with the fox head on one end. She seemed more upset about dirtying her coat than she was about hurting herself. If she'd been holding the wall, like I was, then she wouldn't have hit the trough. It was too high to trip her over, but it would've been funny if she'd fallen in the water. When she bashed into it she said a naughty word. Then she got embarrassed because I'd heard her, and she grumped that little boys shouldn't be out on their own in this weather. She wasn't a very nice lady. She had a big green smudge across her coat, from where the trough was mossy, but I didn't dare laugh.

A policeman banged into a belisha beacon, but he didn't swear. He was pushing his bike along the pavement and slowed down to ask if I was alright to get myself home. I suppose he wasn't really looking where he was going and that's why he hit the post. It was his bike that hit the pole, but it stopped him sharp and made a dreadful clatter, what with the bike falling over and the yellow beacon shaking on top of the post. His helmet fell off and I saw the truncheon swinging under his cape. I laughed, because he laughed first and made a great joke of it. I like policemen.

I wonder what happened to whoever was in the ambulance? The wireless says that the hospitals were nearly as busy as in the war. Grown ups are always talking about the war, as if it was yesterday, but I don't remember it. Mum says it was a terrible time with the flying bombs and things, and people got carried off in ambulances and stretchers every night. Perhaps if the lady and the policeman had fallen over properly they'd have been taken off in an ambulance as well. If that had happened to the posh lady, she'd have deserved it.

© Derrick Phillips - 2000