London commuters deal with a new hardship — clouds of African dust

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: We end today's show on a completely different note. Living and commuting in any big city can be stressful. If you live in London, you probably don't expect to have to deal with clouds of Saharan dust on your way to work but that's what many Londoners woke up to this morning, a pollution alert that involved a covering of red dust from Africa. Happens often in parts of southern Europe but Londoners are definitely not used to this, including Robert Elms, who hosts BBC London's lunch time radio phone-in show.

Robert Elms: I woke up this morning to take my daughter to school, as a dutiful father will, and we walked out to our car that was parked outside of my house and it was covered in this fine, well actually not so fine, quite thick layer of reddish-yellow dust. I thought it was the building works up the road so I was going to shout at builders but then I saw that it was on quite a lot of cars all the way around the street. I didn't know what it was so I took her to school, came home, then I went to work, started presenting my radio show and I just said "did anyone else have dust on their car this morning?" and of course we got inundated with calls of people saying "yeah, it was like I was living in a desert. I'd woken up somewhere in the Sahara."

Werman: So a layer of dust, but what about in the air? Were there clouds of dust?

Elms: Well, you couldn't really see it but I went out cycling after that and you could certainly feel it and you could breath it. I was gasping for air and you could taste this stuff in the air, really. The air tasted different and felt a bit different and it certainly stung your eyes and your throat.

Werman: what did it taste like?

Elms: Tasted like chalk, or it tasted like dust I guess. I can't say it tasted of Moroccan food or something, which would've been splendid. It wasn't particularly pleasant, you're not supposed to taste the air.

Werman: We're just referring to the cause as "freak atmospheric conditions," but do you have a better sense, after doing your show and talking about this today, how this happens?

Elms: We spoke to weather people and apparently it's not unique, and other people, who are older than me and with better memories, say that they remember this happening before and apparently it does require a whole host of different freak conditions. Supposedly there'd been some sort of sandstorm in the Sahara over the weekend. I don't know how rare sandstorms in the Sahara are, but there'd been one which had whipped up an awful lot of sand and then the prevailing winds had come from the southeast, which is, if you keep going southeast of my house, I guess you'd end up in Africa, and it somehow decided to come to London and then deposit on us. It's just one of those kind of freak things that you think "isn't nature kind of fabulous?" That somehow we've got a little bit of Africa coming to us. This is a very cosmopolitan city, we're used to that sort of stuff.

Werman: I know music is a big part of your call-in show at the BBC. I gather today you played "Night Boat to Cairo" by the ska band Madness. Why'd you do that?

Elms: Well, it's perfectly apt. First of all, I live in Camden town, which is where I first spotted the dust, and Madness are from Camden town, they're a local band. So you know, you can get a night boat to Cairo, but you don't need to know because Cairo has come to us.

Werman: Robert Elms, the host of BBC London's lunch time radio phone-in show. Thanks so much for your time.

Elms: Thank you.

Werman: The Saharan dust cloud over London inspired us to pull together a playlist of sand-themed tunes. "Night Boat to Cairo," is on it. Check out the other jams at our Soundcloud page, Soundcloud.com/TheWorld. Mostly clear skies for us, thank goodness, here at our studios at WGBH in Boston. I'm Marco Werman, we're back tomorrow.