Brown Goo like Marmite

Neal Ascherson

  • London Fog: The Biography by Christine Corton
    Harvard, 408 pp, £22.95, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 674 08835 1

The little pub is still there, the Myddleton Arms, and in front of it the zebra crossing on the Canonbury Road. I came out of the pub that evening in early December 1962, and stopped as the door closed behind me. There was no crossing, no beacon pole. I could make out the paving slabs gleaming wetly under my feet, but not the kerb. With a painful jolt, I stumbled into the roadway. Shuffling forward into the thick yellow murk, I suddenly saw what looked like a row of orange pips hung across the street. I kept moving towards them until I collided with something wide and hard: a vast object which turned out to be a London bus, slewed across the street and abandoned by passengers and driver. The orange pips were the bulbs of its lower-deck lights. It was quiet but not soundless. It was like the H.G. Wells story in which time is slowed down until sounds disintegrate into separate beats. Cars revved somewhere; a lorry far over towards Shoreditch hooted. A distant alarm pulsed. Across a distance which could have been far or close came the tap of a stick, then a few footfalls which died away.

Liverpool Street Station, January 1959
Liverpool Street Station, January 1959

That was the very last London fog. Children in Bow had to sleep in their classrooms. Thousands of empty cars were left blocking the North Circular. The Duchess of Kent was unable to reach her flight at Stansted; the prime minister failed to get to a dinner at the Savoy. A monkey got lost in Oxford Street, and a Slavonian grebe – trying to migrate without sight of ground or stars – made a forced landing in Regent Street. At Richmond, a man cycled into the river. There was a wave of burglaries.

There were 750 deaths attributed to the fog. This was low compared to the penultimate ‘Great Fog’ of ten years before, which is supposed to have killed more than four thousand people. But the ‘killer fog’, and especially its increasing component of sulphur dioxide, raised a much greater public uproar than its predecessor in 1952. The papers complained that it should never have happened: hadn’t the Clean Air Act been in force since 1956? But this fuss, and the better enforcement of smoke control measures and smokeless-zone regulation, ensured that 1962 would be the last of the classic London fogs. From the late 1960s, the smog of hydrocarbon vehicle emissions became the main threat to London lungs. The ‘London Particular’, the ‘pea-souper’ that was the city’s brand for so many centuries, has not been seen since, and – logically, scientifically – should never be seen again. But then, that’s what they thought before 1962.

Christine Corton’s excellent book explores three questions: how people accounted for London fog, what they did about it, and how it became such an enormous, apparently inexhaustible cultural resource and metaphor. Liability to fog has ultimately something to do with London’s position in a river basin, hemmed in to the north by hills. The atmosphere was already thickening in Tudor times, as Queen Elizabeth declared herself ‘greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea-coles’. Then and in the 17th century, industry was blamed; wood-smoke from lime-burning and fumes from coal (‘sea-coal’) burned in breweries, bakeries and glass foundries. John Evelyn’s Fumifugium, or, the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated (1661) dismissed the idea that domestic hearths had much to do with it – probably correctly at the time.

Evelyn wrote about ‘Clowds of Smoak and Sulphur, so full of Stink and Darknesse’, and he noticed that the polluted air was ‘super-inducing a sooty Crust or Fur upon all that it lights’. (Here, exactly, was that London which endured down to and beyond the moment I first glimpsed it in wartime: a city of mourning-black temples whose columns and arches were wrapped in inky, velvety fur. Who under fifty, knowing only this golden-scrubbed city centre, can imagine that?) Evelyn’s idea of a cure was to drive smoky industries out of London and surround the town with a sweet-smelling hedge. Nothing was done. But Evelyn’s emphasis on factories was the beginning of four hundred wasted years of blame game between the industrial lobby and those who proclaimed the increasing danger to public health and to normal urban life. Especially in the Victorian and Edwardian years, politicians took every kind of evasive action to avoid the thought that domestic coal fires – the sacred family hearth itself – rather than factory chimneys might be the critical source of London fog. As a journalist wrote in 1822, every proposal for smoke control was resisted by ‘smoke-burner’ MPs in the industrial interest, and when each parliamentary recess arrived, ‘we relapse into our pristine fuliginosity.’

As the 18th century ended, London was already referred to as ‘the Smoke’, and the fogs were growing more frequent and denser. Their colour began to darken from the yellow of sulphur to brown and even black, as the load of soot particles thickened. An act summoning furnace-masters to modify steam engines and induce them to consume their own smoke was ineffective. Once again, Parliament was addressing the less important source, but – with England’s forests mostly cleared – no alternative to coal for heating and cooking yet existed for London’s growing population.

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