In her timely new book, London Fog, Christine L Corton luxuriates in all the Dickensian associations of fog. In works such as Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend and A Christmas Carol, Dickens uses the fog as a plot device, almost as another character. Scrooge feels his way through “the palpable brown air”, one side of the street barely visible from the other. The fog hid all manner of crimes, seeping up the river and into the Thames basin, geographically situated to hold the mist like an ominous bowl over the citizens’ heads. As Corton notes, it was believed that the suicide rate climbed sharply in November, with the onset of the fog.
Without the fog, we’d lack half of 19th-century literature. Arthur Conan Doyle’sHound of the Baskervilles howled out of the gothic Dartmoor mist; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde relied on the curtain of fog to obscure his transformations; Jack the Ripper’s evil seemed to prosper under the miasma, as if it had infected men’s souls.
Art, too, was born out of the mist. JMW Turner, who, like John Constable, was obsessed with the sky, created suffuse, luminously foggy canvases in his views of the Thames, later lovingly parodied by Herman Melville in 1851 as “boggy, soggy, squitchy” pictures, “truly, enough to drive a man distracted”. Interestingly, it took an American visitor such as Melville, staying in London in 1849, to be the first to record the words “pea soup” in relation to the fog. And another American,James McNeill Whistler, would build on this brilliant murk in his revolutionary Nocturnes, seeing the city, its lights and even its fireworks as glowing smears in the mist in his evocative painting of Battersea bridge.
Brutal as its effect might be, there was a sensuality to this phenomenon, too. The name “London particular” was not only an affectionate appropriation, but also a sly pun on the word “particular”, meaning “mistress”. In the second world war, fog conspired with the blackout to create any number of amorous situations, even in the doorways of Regent Street. In David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), it became the emblematic cover for Laura and Alec’s passionate extramarital affair.Lean, of course, was the past master at fog: witness his Great Expectations (1946). Fog was almost a reassurance in the 1940s, as though it might protect the country from aerial attack.
By the 1950s, it was finally identified as lethal itself, when it combined with industrial and domestic smoke. As Alexandra Harris notes in her own climatically evocative new book, Weatherland, the Great Smog of 1952 created six hours of “near-total blackout” in London. A performance at Sadler’s Wells had to be stopped because audiences couldn’t see the stage. And 4,000 people died as a result of the effects of the fog.
A century before, Victorian newspapers had warned of the dangers, citing the suffering of animals, as though they were canaries in the mine. In an agricultural show held in Islington in 1873, tens of cattle died, choking “as if they had been inhaling a noxious gas”. By 1879, a 200% increase in human mortality was being recorded during foggy periods. Yet despite persistent calls for action, free-marketeers argued that any restrictions on industry would affect economic growth and could not be countenanced. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Nowadays we labour daily under an invisible evil of diesel, steadily poisoning us, courtesy of international manufacturers of combustion engines. The Victorian pea-souper may have been deadly, but at least it was a visible peril.
Many of those historical “particulars” that floated into London seemed to come from the east. They were blamed on Shakespeare’s “fen-sucked fogs”, and later, on “sea coal” – as if the German Ocean, as it was known, had risen up against the land. As I swam in the sea this morning, in the dark, I pushed out into the utter unknown. It was thrilling, and frightening, to be in a familiar place suddenly muffled in silence and deprived of all its markers. Today being the feast of All Souls, it felt apt that I seemed to be swimming in the land of the dead. I was only glad I’d left my bike light blinking on the sea wall, or I might never have returned to write this.