GLASGOW’S SMOKY BREATH

Blog

“Then suddenly the sun was snuffed

Behind a sooty cloud

And night let fall on Glasgow Green

Its sulphur-stinking shroud”

From News of the World, Iain Hamilton, 1949

In the same year I was born in Glasgow, the city suffered one of the worst smog events in the whole of smog history – 47 days and nights of air-grime lingered down the Clyde valley. Visibility was next to nil. People died of pneumonia. Then, three years on, the legendary 1962 pea souper descended on London then other parts of the UK, resulting in the deaths of thousands. After these disasters, the Clean Air Act which had been passed in 1956 was finally enforced. The British coal industry started its precipitous decline to nothingness which now allows UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston to be a green smarty-pants on the world stage.

And as 350.org’s global cooling advocate, Bill McKibben’s recent substack Glasgow -Where Climate Wreckage Began reminds us, inventor James Watt developed the first viable coal powered steam engine, thinking it through on lovely Glasgow Green (c.f. ironic poem above).

Steamboat on the River Clyde among all the lovely sailboats, at the advent of the steam age (engraving by William Daniell, 1813)

But the city is a lesson in damage reversal too. When I was born at Rottenrow Hospital (yes really), Glasgow was a filthy place. Rolling Atlantic sea fogs would combine with both the fug of industry plus chimney-smoke from coal fire hearths in almost every house – living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens.

I still remember the coalman climbing 3 storeys to our flat to deliver hessian sacks of coal to our kitchen “bunker”, some years after the Clean Air Act was passed. And chimney sweeps. Fark … on reflection, I remember them too, dirty men chatting with my Mum, laying their ground-sheets all over the furniture and carpet, before their Dick Van Dyke brushes went up the flues. I also remember the lamplighter, coming around the tenement close (we were in a nice entitled one, by the way) lighting the gas lamps. The long end-tail of the fossil fuel driven Victorian era in one of the greatest Victorian cities.

Through the 20th Century the UK coal industry fought tooth and nail to allow lucrative domestic coal use continue in those hearths. In a swirling cultural essay on London fog, Brown Goo Like Marmite, Neal Ascherson wrote:

Gas and electricity became cheaper and easier to use. The industry and coal lobbies fought on, and in December 1926 the weakened Smoke Abatement Bill which finally limped into law left domestic fireplaces untouched. But the National Smoke Abatement Society carried on the struggle, helped by the steady conversion to gas (by 1938, less than half of domestic fuel consumption was provided by coal).                                                       (London Review of Books, 2015)

The coal industry prevailed for years. Still, in 1962, we had those coal hearths keeping us warm, but by 1967 our family had moved up the road to a flat heated by radiators.

I cracked my childhood head on a stone, coal-fire hearth. My brother cracked his on a radiator. That’s what you call slow progress.

With heavy industry waning in the 60’s and 70’s, Glasgow went into decline. Our family emigrated to North Queensland – my Dad wanted to live somewhere hot for a change.

Coal burns hot, of course, and releases carbon dioxide, cooking the planet, and it also releases sulphur dioxide which mingles with a damp maritime climate and creates sulphuric acid rain, which starts to etch stone. Fly-ash is released too, and this combined fug coats surfaces and weakens lungs, over time.

I returned in 1991 after the grand buildings and the tenements of Glasgow had been sandblasted the previous decade. Crusty black scabs of soot on stone facades around the town were gone and the city glowed like a red beacon in the reasonably clean sunshiny air.

Yes, the banning of coal fires and filthy industrial chimneys, and the subsequent clean-up took more than half a century. People power and regulation pushed back the fossil fuel industry, to mitigate an unquantifiable human carnage. We don’t have half a century to fix things now – just 10 years to avoid the catastrophe of an overheated planet.

But Glasgow knows about cleaning up its act, and the power of regulation over so-called market driven solutions – and leaders at COP 26 should heed those lessons in the city’s stone.