Dirty old town. Why we left London but London never left me.

London-born journalist and author Anna Kenna muses on how a toxic cloud changed the course of her life and saw her grow up on the other side of the world.

On a cold December day in 1952 a filthy smog cloud closed in on London. This deadly weather event, fuelled by a combination of industrial pollution, domestic coal fires and diesel transportation, lasted almost a week and killed thousands. It also changed the course of my life.

My Irish immigrant parents were living in a flat in Kensington. My mother was training to be a nurse and my father was an apprentice saddler, producing harnesses for the Queen’s horses – admittedly an odd vocation for a proud Irishman.

For years I listened to my parents describe the horror of what became known as the Great Smog. The dense pollution blocked out the sun and plunged the city into darkness. People reportedly couldn’t even see their feet and moving around the city, on foot or by vehicle, became extremely dangerous. Hospitals began to fill with thousands struggling to breathe. My father said farmers at Smithfield markets were running out of pubs with rags soaked in whisky to try and revive cattle suffocating in the toxic air.

It was this historic event that made my parents decide to leave London to seek greener pastures and a healthier place to bring up their kids – although it took another three years to make it happen.

In 1955, thanks to an ‘assisted passage’ scheme offered by the New Zealand government, they boarded a boat with my sister, 3 and me 18 months. We sailed on the second voyage of the Shaw Savill’s newest ship, the Southern Cross, a 10-week voyage via the Panama Canal. I still have a scar on my thigh from the smallpox injection we had to have, which apparently made my father and I very sick.

Whilst New Zealand certainly delivered greener pastures, cleaner air and ultimately greater opportunities for the six children my parents would go on to have, there was a trade-off. Moving from the centre of a thriving city like London to Gisborne, an isolated town in provincial New Zealand, was a big adjustment. This was particularly so for my mother whose diaries describe terrible homesickness and many challenges fitting into a new culture.  The contrast in lifestyles can be seen in photos of my parents, with my sister and I, in Kensington Gardens and then later, on a beach in Gisborne.

As we adjusted to life in New Zealand, our Celtic skins burned and peeled under the fierce sun, our vowels began to flatten and barefoot free-ranging became the norm. We grew up with no close family, despite having a huge extended family on both sides, living in Ireland and England.

New Zealand society, particularly in the 60s and 70s was very much built on British culture and institutions. London and its iconic landmarks – Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and the Tower Bridge – loomed large in nursery rhymes, books and popular culture we were exposed to. When television arrived, our newsreaders sounded like they’d been freshly minted at the BBC, and popular shows of the day were British sitcoms – Steptoe and Son, On the Buses, Till Death Do Us Part and later, Coronation Street. Our little country, with its outdated cars and millions of sheep, came to a standstill whenever there was a royal tour.

So, when I returned to London in my early 20s, it felt very much like coming home.  I arrived there on my ‘OE’, an almost obligatory rite of passage for young Kiwis at the time. My British passport proved handy as I smugly strolled past the queues of foreign nationals at Heathrow. Going from a small town in New Zealand to London reversed the culture shock my parents had experienced years before. It was huge, grimy, vast, noisy and fantastic!

The Monopoly board came to life as I travelled to Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Mayfair, Kings Cross and Charing Cross stations and joined the throngs at Convent Garden. As a young journalist, I mooched around Fleet Street; confident I could walk into a job but I didn’t get past the stout girths of the doormen guarding the houses of the media mammoths. In the end, I was hired by the Agricultural Machinery Journal, a sister publication to Farmers Weekly, based in Sutton. It was presumed that, as a Kiwi girl, I must have grown up on a farm so would know all there was to know about agricultural machinery. I soon became the journal’s ‘hydraulics expert’ and got to travel to agricultural shows all over Europe to examine, and write wisely about, the specifications of the latest combine harvesters, ploughs and tractors. There were some perks, like staying in a chateau in France, which was hosting the launch of a new range of John Deere tractors.

For a couple of years my then partner, a Scotsman, and I lived in a drafty house in Wimbledon. It was divided into three flats over three storeys with only one bathroom on the middle floor. If you wanted a bath in the morning (there was no shower) you had to be first to the bathroom to feed a coin into the ancient gas plumbing system to make the water run.

On weekends we’d wander on Wimbledon Common and have a ploughman’s lunch by the fire in one of the local pubs. I was also able to catch up with my many relatives living in London and marvel at the family likeness and many idiosyncrasies we shared, even though we’d grown up thousands of miles apart. We bought a VW combi van and became the Antipodean cliché, travelling to Europe then back to London to work again when the money ran out. As well as the journalism gig, I worked as an administrator for a company selling jackhammers and a clerk in a local health authority. At Christmas, when my New Zealand family was heading for the beach, we were chugging up a snowy A1 to Scotland, heaters full-bore, for a white Christmas and boozy Hogmanay.

I cried hopelessly as I flew out of London in 1979, a mix of the death of a relationship and acknowledgement I would miss this big, crazy complex city where, through a range of experiences, I had truly matured and rounded out as a young adult.  It’s where I finally came to understand my own mind and what I wanted for my future. London, the city of my birth, felt decades later like the place of my rebirth.

After settling back in New Zealand, I would return to England again in the summer of 2019 with my husband and two grown-up daughters. As we landed at Heathrow, I immediately felt the old familiarity return. We stayed in London for a week, walking through Hyde Park, visiting Greenwich Village and taking in a show in West End.  Oddly, I didn’t feel like a visitor. I never have. I guess London is part of my DNA.

As well as changing the course of my life the Great Smog of 1952 drove British lawmakers to pass the world’s first comprehensive national air pollution law. The Clean Air Act of 1956 outlawed the emission of ‘smoke nuisances’ or ‘dark smoke’ and required new furnaces to emit little or no smoke.

Ironically, the act was passed a year after my parents turned their back on the London and sailed for pastures anew. That law and subsequent clean-air initiatives have made London a place where its residents can breathe easier and need never fear the choking gloom that descended without warning so many years ago.

Written By Anna Kenna

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