Fogbound: Country reduced to tiers

I DO like a bit of fog. It smooths the rough edges off the grimier bits of London and dulls the morning clatter.

Mind you, it could be said we currently live in a permanent metaphorical fog as we try to work out the latest post-lockdown Covid regulations. When does the new system come into force anyway? A minute past midnight on Wednesday or on Thursday? The jury’s still out.

Boris Johnson, whiffling through his own personal Brumaire, clarified that: “What we want to avoid is relaxing now too much, taking our foot off the throat of the beast.” That’s all clear, then.

We Londoners are approaching the new regime with our customary equanimity. The Tesco Metro in Tooley Street was teeming as usual this morning as locals stocked up on vital pre-weekend supplies, bulk-buying mainly cigarettes and lottery tickets by the look of it.

A few of us plan to be at the starting gate next week to grab an outside table at the Horseshoe Inn when the pubs reopen. Apparently, you can only have a pint as part of a substantial meal, helpfully identified by the BBC as “such as a pasty and chips”. Yum. Can’t wait.

It seems our brethren up north are in a tiz because most of them have been dumped into the harshest Tier 3 regulations. No pasties for them!

They’re whingeing that they are once again having to bear the brunt, conveniently forgetting that when the bug was raging through the capital at the start of the pandemic nobody north of Watford gave a monkey’s.

But I don’t want to stir further divisions in our island nation. We’ve got enough of them already. That said, I worry that the so-called tier system can only exacerbate the situation.

I can see it entering the vocabulary. Picture a group of Islington yummy mummies eyeing up the new parent at the pre-school drop-off. “Oh, but she’s so Tier 3!”

All of London has been shoved into Tier 2 despite widespread discrepancies across the city. Southeast London is having it pretty easy, while across the river in Shadwell and Stratford, they’re apparently dropping like flies.

And are we making a fuss? No. Londoners are remarkably sanguine about these occasional upsets, perhaps because our history contains so many of them.

This morning’s fog got me thinking of the old pea-soupers. You don’t get them any more because they were not so much fog as festering clouds of poison, the greatest and last of which descended around this time of year in 1952.

The Great Smog killed a pandemic-level 4,000 people in a week, although those of us who were kids remember it rather fondly. The game was to head out into the gloom, barely lit by the odd bonfire to guide the buses, and to see how far you could stretch your fingers before they disappeared.

The smogs had got worse by the early 50s. Churchill had bumped up the production of coal post-war and it was virtually the only means of domestic heating for most of the city.

The Great Smog figured in Netflix’s The Crown – not the latest one about Princess Di, but the one with Churchill in it. One episode had an increasingly senile prime minister wrestling with the smog crisis.

In a sense, the Great Smog marked the end of a wartime era that had persisted since 1945. Rationing was to last for another two years. Money was still in short supply as were things to spend it on. Inner London was still scarred with bombsites.

After the passing of the first Clean Air Act the use of raw coal was eventually banned. The London pea-souper became a distant memory.

A couple of years ago, I met a producer on The Crown who had been responsible for the fog sequences. He asked me, as a survivor, how I thought he had done.

I told him: “You could have made it thicker.”

Eastward ho! Rippers, gangsters and the Elephant Man

FELLOW idle walkers will confirm that yet another lockdown has tended to confine us to our cruising areas, in my case the urban wonderland that is inner southeast London.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of diverse bits of the capital easily accessible from that particular safety zone, including my latest destination – Whitechapel.

It’s an area that is both sinister and exotic, particularly if you’ve crossed over from the Other Side.

This corner of the old East End owes the former reputation in part to the activities of a late 19th century serial killer, immortalised in the name of a local fried fish shop on Whitechapel High Street, Jack the Chipper.

A couple of decades earlier, Joseph Merrick, the severely deformed Elephant Man, had been put on display at a freak show in the back of a shop in the Whitechapel Road.

An even darker stain on the area’s rep is its association with the Krays, the murderous twins who ran organised crime in the East End in the 50s and 60s.

It was at Whitechapel’s Blind Beggar pub in 1966 that Ronnie Kray shot and killed George Cornell, a hood with the rival south London Richardson gang.

The refurbished pub now punts itself as “the most famous pub in Great Britain”. And we all know why, don’t we?

One of the most dispiriting things about London folklore is that it so often gives pride of place to psychopathic gangsters like the Krays and the Richardsons, both the subjects of endless films and documentaries, though mercifully with time the undeserved glamour is fading.

There was a time when nearly every bloke who’d done National Service in the early 50s claimed to have been in the same unit as the Krays (the twins spent most of their service in the glasshouse), while every dustman in south London would insist he had emptied the Richardsons’ bins.

The brothers hung out with aristos and stars in the West End until their inevitable comeuppance.

At the same time as they were rampaging around Whitechapel, the area became the focus of an explosion of London Jewish literary talent with works by Arnold Wesker, Wolf Mankowitz, Bernard Kops, and Lionel Bart, the creator of Oliver!

Mankowitz’s gentle, Whitechapel-set novel A Kid for Two Farthings was made into a film in 1955 starring, among others, the excellent Diana Dors. The 50s’ blonde bombshell was one of the Krays’ coterie of West End showbiz friends.

(At around that time, Mankowitz and his wife would often cross the river to have a sit-down fish supper at our shop in New Cross, declaring it the city’s finest and thereby no doubt inviting the wrath of Jack the Chipper.)

The era of Jewish Whitechapel was by then past its heyday. Many of the community’s workers and small businessmen, who had dominated the area’s markets and rag trade, had moved on to north London or to Israel.

Bloom’s kosher restaurant survived until 1996. The self-employed waiters there earned their living by buying the meals from the kitchen and selling them at a profit to the diners, hence the commendable rapidity of the service.

The latest newcomers were immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, mainly Bangladeshis. They and their descendants are known back home as the Londoni.

The latest flavour of Whitechapel, a focus for immigration over the centuries, is now south Asian and Muslim, with religious life focused on the East London Mosque. During the ISIS crisis, there was much media jumping up and down about the mosque, opened in 1985, being a focus for radicalisation. The mosque vigorously denied it.

In any event, most of Whitechapel’s peaceable Muslim stallholders and market traders are presently more focused on keeping business going in the Covid crisis than on promoting global Jihad.

Once everything opens up again, I recommend a trip to Whitechapel for some proper Asian grub and a trawl round the markets. There’s also the Whitechapel Art Gallery with an art nouveau exterior that’s a work of art in itself.

And – stop press! – there’s even a chance the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (today’s picture) might survive. The foundry, established in 1570, manufactured the Liberty Bell and recast Westminster’s Big Ben.

Then, in 2017, the present 17th century building shut up shop to make way for a luxury hotel development that would incorporate it. But now there’s an alternative plan to re-open it as a bell foundry, with a government inquiry set to make a recommendation. Ding-dong to that!

Pilgrims progress: a pint and a turkey sandwich before you go?

IT IS 400 years since the Pilgrim Fathers cast off for the New World from a riverside wharf east of King’s Stairs in the parish of St Mary the Virgin. Mind you, if they’d had a crystal ball to show them this week’s headlines from Washington, they might have opted to stay in Rotherhithe.

The knife-edge results in the Trump-Biden race once more exposed the wider deep divisions within the modern world: rich v. poor, populists v. liberals, north v. south London.

The departing protestant Separatists would be familiar enough with that. They were fleeing discrimination from the established church, an institution that in the 17th century was very much of the “if you don’t like it here, why don’t you leave?” persuasion.

They didn’t have any real connection with south-of-the-river Rotherhithe, although the skipper of their vessel, the Mayflower, was a local. It was a bit like modern venturers setting out for the unknown and choosing to leave from Gatwick.

That hasn’t stopped Rotherhithe milking the connection to attract visiting Americans, at least as far as the local Mayflower pub. There were none of them around as I walked past today.

The pub was originally the Shippe Inn and then the Spread Eagle and Crown until its final renaming in 1956 as the brewers sought to cash in on the Mayflower connection.

They make a big deal about being the only British pub licensed to sell US stamps, a boast that was more impressive in the days when people still posted letters to each other.

Captain Christopher Jones picked up 65 passengers at Rotherhithe in July 1620 and, with a layover in Plymouth, they reached America in November. A year later they were well enough set up to enjoy their first Thanksgiving turkey dinner, or it could have been venison, courtesy of the local Wampanoag tribe.

There were big plans in Rotherhithe to figuratively push the boat out for this year’s 400th anniversary. The local Southwark Council and its partners put up £140,000 towards various community and arts projects. And you can bet turkey would have been on the menu at the Mayflower.

Many of the festivities, like so much else these days, have been shelved because of the Covid crisis. That would probably have suited the Pilgrim Fathers just fine. They weren’t really party people.

But there are plenty of other things to see in this rather charming corner of south east London. There’s St Mary’s Church in the grounds of which Captain Jones is buried. And opposite is an old granary that houses the Sands Studio and film club. A six-hour version of Little Dorrit was once filmed there, in one the corners of London we might still describe as Dickensian.

A few yards away is the engine house of the Thames tunnel built by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, the first below-river tunnel anywhere in the world when it opened in 1843. The tsar had already turned down his plan for a tunnel under the River Neva. His son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel also worked on the Rotherhithe project.

It was originally a pedestrian link to Wapping on the opposite bank and rapidly became a hangout for pedlars, thieves and prostitutes. Then the railway came, and it’s still used as part of what used to be called the tube’s East London Line.

The engine house is a museum now, shut again for the duration. In normal times you can take a staircase down almost to the tunnel entrance and listen to the trains rumble by. I remember the days before refurbishment when the tube tunnel leading under the river still leaked like a sieve.

Another favourite, a few hundred yards west along the river, is the ruin of Edward III’s 14th century lodge, not much more than the foundations excavated in the 1980s. A preservation order means the open space has not been turned into yet another bland block of flats by the developers.

I won’t go on. You haven’t got all day. But you might want to go and check out the area’s Scandinavian connections – all those Nordic seafarers arriving over the centuries There’s even a Finnish church with its own sauna. Churchgoers are said to be full of stories about the sauna’s miraculous effects, so onward pilgrims!