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I’ve been reading Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese. It’s a fascinating history of how humans have come to use and rely on the power generated by burning coal. It’s got a bit of an environmentalist bent to it, but I’d highly recommend it!

In my reading, Ms. Freese mentioned something about a ‘killer fog’ event in London during December of 1873. While trying to find information on this event, which is hard, I found something else:

The Killer Fog of ’52

No, I’m not talking about The Fog or its crappy remake!

Between Dec. 5-9th 1952, London was trapped in a fog (or smog, if you will) of epic proportions. Trapped by the inversion layer formed by the dense mass of cold air, the already horrible air pollution became toxic and killed as many as 12,000 people in London.

“The lips of the dying were blue. Heavy smoking and chronic exposure to pollution had already weakened the lungs of those who fell ill during the smog. Particulates and acids in the killer brew finished the job by triggering massive inflammations. In essence, the dead had suffocated.” — NPR: The Great Fog of ’52

Accounts of survivors in a BBC article

A bit more reading from the Met Office file on the Fog of ’52

Fifty years later, people don’t talk much about this event. It’s become a blot in the pages of history. But its impact changed the way people saw the environment and how mankind has polluted it.

Although steps were taken to clean the air in London (and the Earth as a whole, with the Kyoto Protocol) some 20,000 in England alone suffer shortened lives each year do to air pollution.

Just imagine if this happened in Los Angeles. Or New York City. Or Chicago.

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At 16, I spent 10 days in London, England. It was a “last gift”, if you will, from my beloved grandfather. Before he died that year, he had told me he would send me on a trip, somewhere outside the United States.

I think his intention had been to send me alone with some group, like People-to-People. Which is not my cup of tea. If I’m going some place I’ve never been I tend to want to explore on my own and not keep a demanding and rigid schedule.

So, instead of that, the immediate family went. Mom, dad, and grandma. Plus me. A 16 year old, blood-red-haired me. Stuck right in the middle of my hardcore “I wear only black clothing.” phase.

Good times.

We did a lot in those ten days. One of the most interesting bits was the fact that we decided to visit the world famous department store, Harrod’s. Being the first week in December, the Christmas decor and celebrations were in full-swing around London. And Harrod’s didn’t disappoint.

As a kid I had visited many a mall Santa. You know the drill: stand in line for what seems like forever, finally get to sit on Santa’s lap, tell him maybe three things you want, pose for an extremely over-priced photo, get a tiny candy cane in a cellophane wrapped, NEXT!

With its rich traditions and decidedly different history compared to America, England’s version of Santa is similar but different.

And when it comes to Harrod’s everything’s A-list and over the top.

I took it into my head that I was going to stand in line and see Father Christmas at Harrod’s.

“Okay… good luck.” My mom departed, leaving me standing in a line that was remeniscient of a ride line at Disneyland. Complete with markers hanging over head that read “X hours til front of the line from this point”. I think the one I started at was 1.5 hours.

Unlike the standard mall Santa where you stand in a line on public display to the hoardes of mall shoppers, at Harrod’s this year you entered a strange and wonderful tunnel-like room. On either side were windows with various scenes from the “story” they were presenting that year; I think it had to do with teddy bears and woodland creatures trying to find Father Christmas or something. Some of the scenes had moving figures and I guess there was a backstory you could read.

What intrigued me the most was the fact there were several girls, around my age and older, wandering up and down this snaking line of mothers and their children. They were dressed in costumes similar to something like Bo-Peep or Litttle Miss Muffet. You know, the tightly laced bodice with the short and immensely poofy skirt with all the crinolines underneath.

They were carrying large box-like trays. Like the ones the cigarette girls used to carry. But instead of cigarettes they were filled with gingerbread men, candy canes, other types of cookies and candy. And they were passing the goodies out! Just handing huge gingerbread men and candy canes out by the handful to the waiting children and mothers to eat while they stood in this line!

Not to mention another girl wandered up and down the line handing out half-sized bottles of Evian water! EVIAN!

Okay so I was more then a little impressed with this setup. Compared to the cheap tiny candy canes you get from American Santas, this was lavish!

At some point I began to notice mothers were looking at me in that funny “what the hell are you doing here?” way. I was alone in the line, sans children of any sort, and I’ve always looked older then my age. And I’m sure when I spoke to the magical girls handing out loads of free food the American accent was a dead giveaway.

I guess I should point out what I looked like: The as-forementioned blood-red hair, which reached my just past my shoulders at this point. I was dressed head-to-toe in black. Black shirt, black hooded sweatshirt. A pair of Indian velvet pants that were semi-reminiscent of something a harem girl would wear (that I had recently purchased in a boot-sale outside St. Martin-in-the-Fields) and a pair of laced-to-the-knee 3.5 inch heel leather boots I had bought at Shelley’s outside Oxford Circus. My major find at a shop in Covent Gardens had been a necklace probably made in India of of silver set with large half circle black stones that draped my neck.

Probably a bit ostentatious when seeing Father Christmas for the first time.

It’s really no wonder why the mothers were giving me strange looks now, isn’t it.

So, after what seemed forever (but was greatly eased by all the candy and cookies and Evian) I reached the front of the line.

“How old are you?” the girl in the Bo-Peep-like costume who guarded the curtained door asked me. I told her. “And you’re waiting to see Father Christmas?” She gave me an incredulous look. “You know, you can smoke and drink over here at 16.”

Yeah, with my parents with me? Not likely going to happen.

We chatted a bit more before she was informed that Father Christmas was ready to see me. (When entering the darkened hallway, I realized there were two doors. Two Father Christmases. Figures.)

I entered a tiny room that was swelteringly hot, after the frigid area the line was qued in, and found not only a jolly Father Christmas sitting on a golden bench, but two or three other people.

Father Christmas’ handlers.

Father Christmas greeted me and immediately noticed my hands. “Black nail polish? Are you a vampire?”

I don’t remember quite how I answered that one.

He bade me sit beside him on the bench and asked if I’d been good, what I wanted for Christmas, how I liked London. I’m pretty sure I answered as best I could; I think I was still rather dumbstuck by the vampire question.

The handlers brought out a digital camera on a tripod, posed me with Father Christmas and took our picture. They were all merry people, more then obviously amused at the 16 year old girl in black clothes from America who was sitting with Father Christmas.

I guess it wasn’t a common occurance. At least I gave them something to talk about?

It was all over in a matter of minutes. They run a tight ship at Harrod’s. Father Christmas bade me farewell, thanked me for visiting him and England altogether, and started handing me things.

He handed me a small hardback book about the story that was displayed outside in the line, a regular-sized candy cane, a button that I believe said I had visited Father Christmas at Harrod’s (“and all I got was this lousy button”.) and sent me on my way back to the real world. A handler told me the picture would be ready for purchase in a few minutes.

I was ushered though a door and it was over.

Mom found me standing there slightly bewildered looking, holding all the goodies from Father Christmas, three mini bottles of Evian, a gingerbread man, and a look of “what the hell just happened?” plasted on my face.

The picture ended up being something like 15 pounds, but was a nice 8×10 digital print. In a little cardboard folder. With the Harrod’s logo on it. Not a cheap little Polaroid taped onto a piece of paper.

That’s how I met Father Christmas and he asked if I was a vampire.

Past, Present, & Future

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