'Death In The Air' Revisits 5 Days When London Was Choked By Poisonous Smog

Oct 17, 2017

Nicknames like a real "peasouper" or a "London Particular" make the quintessential foggy day in London Town sound so quaint — an impression that's been intensified in art and literature.

Certainly, the London of Sherlock Holmes would be a lot less mysterious without that obscuring fog. Impressionist painter Claude Monet, who famously depicted the Houses of Parliament shrouded in mist, said that: "Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It is the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth."

Monet was talking about an added dimension to the city; but "breath," as in human breath, was precisely what the fog stole from London in the terrible winter of 1952.

For five days in December of that year, London was blanketed by a yellow toxic vapor that smothered its inhabitants. By the time this poisonous air mass moved on and death records were correctly tallied, some 12,000 people would be recognized as fatalities of what was called The Great Smog of 1952.

Journalist Kate Winkler Dawson has written an intriguing book about this silent disaster, which was borne out of a perfect storm of freak weather patterns and environmental ignorance.

The moist air of the Gulf Stream stalled for days over London that winter, long enough for there be a deadly build-up of soot, sulphur dioxide and other poisons emitted from the cheap sea coal (known as "nutty slack") that most Londoners used to heat their flats and houses.

The Great Smog also gave off a great stink: acrid and burning. In fact, on the cover of Dawson's book there's an arresting black and white photograph of a young woman, wearing a pearl choker and a tweedy-looking suit, with her chiffon scarf wrapped around her mouth like a face mask.

That photograph is, no doubt, meant to be suggestive of Dawson's other disturbing subject here. Death in the Air attempts to be a kind of a true crime book about two stranglers on the loose in London that winter. One an environmental killer (the smog); the other the infamous serial killer John Reginald Christie, who lured women to his Notting Hill flat and murdered them by suffocation. He's responsible for at least eight deaths.

Those parallel plotlines never quite intersect. Death in the Air would've been an even more compelling book without Dawson's somewhat forced attempt to make connections between these two London "stranglers."

Another strike against the Christie story is that his grisly career has been exhaustively documented in books and films. The Great Smog, however, was underreported when it happened, and is still not all that widely known; it seems an even more timely tale in our own age of extreme weather and environmental catastrophes.

Dawson cuts a precise narrative path through the smog by marshaling together an array of government and newspaper reports and interviews with people who lived through those terrible five days when trains, buses and ships on the Thames came to a standstill and crime was rampant.

Most affecting are the first-person recollections of a woman who was 13 years old that winter. Rosemary Sargent's working-class neighborhood had been bombed during the Blitz and she and her siblings had been separated from their beloved father for years during the war.

When the Great Smog began, Rosemary's father, his lungs already weakened by war work, started gasping for air. She and her mother stumbled to the doctor's office to get a nitroglycerin tablet; by the time they returned, Rosemary's father had died. He had to be laid out in the parlor of their small house for two weeks. As Dawson writes:

One of the most astonishing things about this deadly fog was who it first alarmed — not politicians, reporters, or even doctors, but undertakers. Across London, funeral directors reported a surge in bodies, so many that the demand for caskets was insatiable.

When the smog finally lifted, it took months — even years — for officials to realize that thousands of deaths attributed to heart disease or the flu were really caused by the toxic air.

In 1956, Britain passed the milestone Clean Air Act, which tightened restrictions on industrial smoke and banned coal in many houses and industries. Dawson says it was the first comprehensive legislation to attack air pollution. The number of "fog events" and deaths immediately dropped. The lessons for the present, Dawson suggests, are as clear as the air in front of our eyes.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The hurricanes and wildfires that have dominated the news this fall make a new nonfiction book about a deadly London smog seem particularly timely. Here's our book critic Maureen Corrigan's review of "Death In The Air."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: A real pea souper, a London particular - those nicknames for the quintessential foggy day in London town always make it sound so quaint, an impression that's been intensified in art and literature. Certainly, the London of Sherlock Holmes would be a lot less mysterious without that obscuring fog. And impressionist painter Claude Monet, who famously depicted the houses of Parliament shrouded in mist, said that without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It is the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth.

Monet was talking about an added dimension to the city. But breath - as in human breath - was precisely what the fog stole from London in the terrible winter of 1952. For five days in December of that year, London was blanketed by a yellow, toxic vapor that smothered its inhabitants. By the time this poisonous air mass moved on and death records were correctly tallied, some 12,000 people would be recognized as fatalities of what was called the Great Smog of 1952.

Journalist Kate Winkler Dawson has written an intriguing book about the silent disaster, which was born out of a perfect storm of freak weather patterns and environmental ignorance. The moist air of the Gulf Stream stalled for days over London that winter, long enough for there to be a deadly buildup of soot, sulfur dioxide and other poisons emitted from the cheap sea coal known as nutty slack that most Londoners used to heat their flats and houses.

The great smog also gave off a great stink, acrid and burning. In fact, on the cover of Dawson's book, there's an arresting black-and-white photograph of a young woman wearing a pearl choker and a tweedy-looking suit with her chiffon scarf wrapped around her mouth like a face mask. That photograph is no doubt meant to be suggestive of Dawson's other disturbing subject here. "Death In The Air" attempts to be a kind of true-crime book about two stranglers on the loose in London that winter - one an environmental killer, the smog, the other the infamous serial killer John Reginald Christie, who lured women to his Notting Hill flat and murdered them by suffocation. He is responsible for at least eight deaths. Those parallel plot lines never quite intersect. "Death In The Air" would have been an even more compelling book without Dawson's somewhat forced attempt to make connections between these two London stranglers.

Another strike against the Christie story is that his grisly career has been exhaustively documented in books and films. The great smog, however, was underreported when it happened, and it's still not all that widely known. It seems an even more timely tale in our own age of extreme weather and environmental catastrophes. Dawson cuts a precise narrative path through the smog by marshaling together an array of government and newspaper reports and interviews with people who lived through those terrible five days when trains, buses and ships on the Thames came to a standstill, and crime was rampant. Most affecting are the first-person recollections of a woman who was 13 years old that winter.

Rosemary Sargent's working-class neighborhood had been bombed during the Blitz, and she and her siblings had been separated from their beloved father for years during the war. When the great smog began, Rosemary's father, his lungs already weakened by war work, started gasping for air. She and her mother stumbled to the doctor's office to get a nitroglycerin tablet. By the time they returned, Rosemary's father had died. He had to be laid out in the parlor of their small house for two weeks.

As Dawson says, one of the most astonishing things about this deadly fog was who it first alarmed - not politicians, reporters or even doctors, but undertakers. Across London, funeral directors reported a surge in bodies, so many that the demand for caskets was insatiable. When the smog finally lifted, it took months, even years, for officials to realize that the thousands of deaths attributed to heart disease or the flu were really caused by the toxic air. In 1956, Britain passed the milestone Clean Air Act, which tightened restrictions on industrial smoke and banned coal in many houses and industries. Dawson says it was the first comprehensive legislation to attack air pollution. The number of fog events and deaths immediately dropped. The lessons for the present, Dawson suggests, are as clear as the air in front of our eyes.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Death In The Air" by Kate Winkler Dawson. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about vice president Mike Pence with New Yorker Washington correspondent Jane Mayer. Her new article, "The President Pence Delusion," takes off from this premise - many of President Trump's critics are hoping Trump doesn't serve his full term, but what kind of president would Mike Pence make? Mayer writes about how he became an evangelical Christian, his political career on the far-right and his backing from the billionaire Koch brothers, who are the subject of her book "Dark Money." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.