Article reproduced with permission from The Daily Chron.
Remembering Red Valentines
A new book asks new questions, and Joanne Zakowic remembers a day of horror
15th February, 2045
Joanna Zakowic, Senior Politics Editor
Today, over two decades ago, Prime Minister Julian Lester resigned in the wake of Red Valentines. After a political career plagued by allegations of corruption, strikes and falling interest rates, nobody thought Lester would be remembered as a hero. But his resignation, and the fall of his party, was an important step in London’s road to recovery.
I had just started at the London Echo, the city’s premier newspaper and my first real job in journalism. Even amongst journalists, who feed on rack and ruin, the atmosphere was unbearably bleak.
We had been left in terror and turmoil by two solid months of darkness. Our government was doing nothing. Our country had no money. Our great Brittonic poet, Byron, springs to mind: “all hearts / Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light.”
Things turned bleaker on February 14th, 2021.
I was covering a big retail story – a scoop, one of my first – on Oxford Street when I heard a mother shriek. To my eternal shame, I did not immediately run towards the commotion: already by 2021 we were becoming used to daily shouts and screams. Living in near-darkess for such a long time was taking its toll on the well-being of everyone who lived in the city.
Many of us believed wholeheartedly that the pollution was a blip, an unhappy consequence of several factors converging at once: the lack of wind, the increase in diesel-fuel engines, the unholy cold of that winter that had seen people take to their cars rather than walk the fifteen minutes to the bus stop.
In the growing frenzy – for looking back, that is the only word fit to describe those months – people were acting very strangely. A once-friendly city was now a hostile place to be.
So when I heard that mother’s shout, instead of dropping everything and rushing to help, I finished my interview.
When I finally reached the scene, around forty people were stood staring in horror. A small child, she could not have been more than six or seven, was weeping, held by her mother. The mother’s hands and clothes were soaking wet. Her child would not stop screaming. The girl’s face was obscured by a mass of blood.
As the nightmare day continued, I lost count of the number of children and adults I saw being ferried into ambulances, queueing outside overrun emergency rooms, and desperately calling friends and family for help. In the worst cases, mothers and fathers knelt on the floor over the unmoving figures of their children.
Not since the Blitz had a terror of such magnitude affected so many, so quickly.
For months, Lester and his government had ignored the calls of lobbyists and charities. Many today believe it was his lack of foresight and judgement that led to such an unprecedented disaster. Indeed, the wave of hatred that surged through the country was enough to stifle any political career. Lester was suddenly toxic.
Paradoxically however, his resignation may have just prevented thing from getting worse. It was the fall of his party that led to the introduction of the Emergency Air Act. It led to the creation of new powers for the Mayor of London. The London Elected Council was immediately formed, which would do such an excellent job of managing the riots. It led to a speedy evolution in how we see empty space in the city, and to the championing in clean air technology by London’s most powerful boroughs, Westminster and Chelsea.
Recently, the political historian Ingvild Moody published a series of essays on the events leading up to Red Valentines. In one, she puts forward the argument that Lester had little to no power over his government’s decisions by the time his leadership came to an end. By 2021, she notes, the government was so firmly in the pockets of the reigning media moguls, and so tied to private and corporate sponsorship, that it was no more than a puppet, completely unable to say or do what was necessary.
Moody argues that, in the face of enormous opposition, and at significant personal risk, Lester’s resignation was in fact an act of courage.
He may have mitigated what was always going to be an environmental, economic and political catastrophe. But for some, the positive repercussions of Lester’s resignation will always be too little, too late. If he had initiated an investigation of the cause of the smog years before Red Valentines, perhaps that tragic day would have never occurred. Perhaps we would not still be living in a city where many fear to leave the sanctuary of the Exclusion Zones. Perhaps our streets would once again be habitable.
I like to imagine that it was not the actions of a politician that turned the fortunes of this city around. Instead, it was its people: the true-grit Londoners that are the hall-mark of our capital. For every individual that was struggling, there was another there to help, and in the space of a few months, pockets of our Surface were up and running again. The City had survived. We were out of the woods.
This week, marking the anniversary of Red Valentines, I asked Prime Minister Margot Stafford for comment on our continuing pollution problems. She had this response:
“Though we still struggle with the smog today, at the very least, this government ensures that the necessary precautions are being taken.”
She drew attention to the fact that we are yet to live in a “post-oil society”, adding that “renewable energy might one day save the world, but until it does we must plan for now.”
For many of us, the memories of Red Valentines will never fade. There are some things that refuse to be forgotten. Yesterday saw services of remembrance across the nation, which fittingly remember the sacrifices made by some in order to safeguard the many. For now, the future looks set to be plagued by this pollution. Perhaps all we can do is stay safe, continue to help each other, and hope that future generations will one day see London as it once was.
Next Week: our Clean Air Charity Ball!