On a recent visit to the Shard, I was disconcerted to find the great city shrouded in murk. I could see across the Thames, but not far beyond. It reminded me of Victorian photographs of London where there are no distant prospects because of the atrocious quality of the ambient air. The notorious winter pea-soupers have gone, but they have been replaced by summer smog from car exhausts.
The idea of a biography of fog in London might initially appear a doubtful enterprise, but in Christine Corton’s capable hands it works brilliantly. The liveliness of metropolitan fog is beautifully charted here in a long chronology from the Stuart era to the Clean Air Acts of the 1950s to 1990s. The book is densely packed with descriptions of the city’s fogs – whether pea-soupers, “London particulars”, misty, smoky, patchy, turgid, fugitive, black, yellow, orange or gamboge.
Corton has been collecting material for years. She freely admits to an obsession with the topic, which is something a historian like me readily understands. Her prolonged single-minded searching and sifting has paid off in the most extraordinarily rich collection of material from scientific, journalistic, literary, humorous, artistic and medical sources. In sharing the results of her extensive trawl, no “theory” obstructs access to the writing. She has created a history of fog’s material and immaterial culture. Numerous well-known authors – Charles Dickens (Bleak House), Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde), Arthur Conan Doyle (the Sherlock Holmes stories) and Lynne Reid Banks (The L-Shaped Room) – have been discerningly probed from this unaccustomed angle, but a large proportion of the material laid out for us derives from obscure writers, all of them interesting and with something valuable to say about fog in its physical and often its shifting cultural and metaphorical manifestations.
The text is interspersed with some astonishing visual material, appropriately placed, making the book a visual feast especially of little-known artworks, caricatures and photographs of great beauty. Corton’s use of the perceptions of foreign visitors, especially those from China and Japan, is revelatory. Like Monet, some came to London specifically to paint the effects of fog.
The great fogs of London derive partly from its geography. Mists and river fogs have probably filled the Thames valley and its estuary since prehistoric times. But, as the metropolitan population and its industries proliferated, there were occasionally cold weather conditions that in effect trapped the smoke rising from myriad coal fires under static low cloud. The longer there was no wind, the more carbon particulates and sulphurous fumes pumped out from industrial and domestic sources built up, creating smogs that lasted for days. Fog reached its first apogee in the 1890s, when serious efforts were made to improve things (an impetus lost during the First World War) and again in the “Killer Fog” of the 1950s, which galvanised change.
London Fog is not just a literary exercise; it also charts the long trajectory of a deeply serious public health matter that we have yet to confront, as we should, once again. Corton shows how for more than a century, “free-trade” parliamentarians such as John Bright were so fiercely hostile to any government interference that they successfully obstructed every attempt to get legislation through Parliament to render factory and domestic chimneys smokeless. Successive governments dragged their feet to favour coal owners and industrialists.
It is a story, like so many others, that precisely illustrates what Karl Figlio termed “socialising the costs of capital’s pathogenicity”: the ordering of society so that the public pays for the collateral damage left by powerful greedy men. The impact of London fog was certainly financial: fogs inflicted colossal costs in disruption of transport, damage to the urban fabric, lost business, criminal activity, accidents and so on. Worse still was the human cost: many thousands of excess deaths, especially among the elderly and those with impaired lung function from tuberculosis or other lung diseases. Most noticeably, prize animals at Smithfield shows died like flies.
The last of the London pea-soupers with their terrible greenish blindness enveloping the streets were part of my childhood. We have different air pollution to consider in London now, such as the summer smogs that bring thousands of premature deaths. This fine book has real substance, generously shared, and is very timely indeed.
Ruth Richardson is senior research fellow, Centre for Life-Writing Research, King’s College London.
London Fog: The Biography
By Christine L. Corton
Harvard University Press, 408pp, £22.95
Published 5 November 2015