Brown Goo like Marmite
- 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
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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Vol. 37 No. 20 · 22 October 2015
I was in London in December 1952 (LRB, 8 October). I had arranged to travel to Cambridge so I walked along the road to Turnham Green Station at 6 a.m. and saw cars trying to find their way home. There was a fuel tanker, with the cab much too high for the driver to see the road, who was following the rear light of a cyclist. He said he had followed it all the way from Streatham. There were strange optical illusions too. I saw a house all lit up, and as I walked towards it it moved towards me, until when I was two feet away I saw it was a phone box. It was thought at the time that the cause of the fog was an inversion, made worse by the smoke from all the steam trains firing up at Chalk Farm.
Vol. 37 No. 21 · 5 November 2015
At the time of the great fog of December 1952 I was working as a junior clerk in the Counting House of Guy’s Hospital in Bermondsey (LRB, 8 October). It was said that during that week there were more hearses leaving the hospital than ambulances arriving. My own recollection is that, against advice, I left the office during my lunch break. When I returned to my desk and picked up my ruler, I found its outline clearly marked on what had been a sheet of white paper. Ascherson also mentions the animals at the Smithfield Show. Many were prize-winning beasts, so efforts were made to save them from the effects of the soot-laden fog inside the show area: sacks were soaked in whisky to filter the air they were struggling to breathe. A few years later I moved to Exeter, where I was amazed to find that fogs were white. I now live in Canberra, where, very occasionally, the airport is closed for an hour or so because of what I would call a ‘mist’.
Neal Ascherson’s piece brought back vivid memories of a late-afternoon car trip in London in mid-December 1952. I was being driven home to Watford from my prep school in Kent. My father, a Londoner, knew every short cut and side-street, and always followed his own carefully chosen route through the heart of the city. The gloom was deepening as we emerged from the north end of the Blackwall Tunnel, and after a further five minutes or so we were in an impenetrable smog. My father stopped the car, pulled a white handkerchief from the glove compartment, and told me to get out and run ahead of him, holding the handkerchief well elevated. I was told to ‘follow the kerb’. Not as dangerous as it sounds: we stuck to the side-streets, and moved slowly. The city was eerily silent and seemed empty. Even outside the car you could only see a few feet ahead. My father called out directions through the open window of the car as we approached each intersection. We continued this regimen, my father barking instructions out of the gloom, for two hours or more. The fog lifted as we approached the Hippodrome in Golders Green: I had been jogging for a little under ten miles.
The photograph in the last issue of a goalkeeper peering through the fog in 1945 brought to mind a famous example of the risks of fog to professional sport. On Christmas Day 1937 Charlton Athletic were playing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge with their English international, Sam Bartram, in goal. In his autobiography Bartram recalled fog enveloping the ground:
The referee stopped the game, and then, as visibility became clearer, restarted it. We were on top at this time, and I saw fewer and fewer figures as we attacked steadily. I paced up and down my goal-line, happy in the knowledge that Chelsea were being pinned in their own half. ‘The boys must be giving the Pensioners the hammer,’ I thought smugly, as I stamped my feet for warmth. Quite obviously, however, we were not getting the ball into the net. For no players were coming back to line up, as they would have done following a goal. Time passed, and I made several advances towards the edge of the penalty area, peering through the murk. Still I could see nothing. The Chelsea defence was clearly being run off its feet. After a long time a figure loomed out of the curtain of fog in front of me. It was a policeman. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’ he gasped. ‘The game was stopped a quarter of an hour ago.’
Vol. 37 No. 22 · 19 November 2015
As fog once again blankets much of the country, I think I can top John Mitchell’s story about the Charlton Athletic v. Chelsea football match of Christmas 1937 (Letters, 5 November). The 1940 New Year’s Day Edinburgh derby match between Hibs and Hearts was played in dense fog at Easter Road. Bob Kingsley had been sent to commentate on the game for the armed forces’ wireless service, but could see absolutely nothing from his seat in the commentary box. However, BBC chiefs were ordered to provide a full commentary so that the Germans would have no inkling that there was heavy fog in the Firth of Forth; the state of the British weather was classified information during the Second World War. Only a few months earlier, on 16 October 1939, the Luftwaffe had launched their first air raid of the war on Royal Navy ships moored under the Forth Bridge; 24 sailors had been killed, and a Spitfire from 603 Squadron (City of Edinburgh) had claimed the RAF’s first kill of the war by downing a Junkers 88 bomber.
As Mark Smith wrote in the Edinburgh Evening News on 11 December 2001, ‘a complex system of runners and information chains was set up by the struggling BBC man to make sure he covered the game’s major talking points, such as goals and corner kicks’. The adrenalin rush must have been considerable since Kingsley continued commentating on the invisible game for 15 minutes after it ended. Meanwhile, two players who failed to hear the final whistle lingered on the pitch for a further ten minutes waiting for a ball that never arrived.
Vol. 37 No. 23 · 3 December 2015
Harry Watson mentions that the RAF’s ‘first kill of the war’ came on 16 October 1939, when a Spitfire from 603 Squadron (City of Edinburgh) downed a Junkers 88 (Letters, 19 November). In fact the first kill by a plane flying from a UK base occurred on 8 October 1939, five weeks after the declaration of hostilities, when a Dornier 18 flying boat was shot down by a Lockheed Hudson from 224 Squadron. In the action Watson refers to, the downed aircraft was a Heinkel 111 and not a Junkers 88; a second Heinkel 111 was shot down ten minutes later by another Spitfire, this time from 602 Squadron (City of Glasgow).
The crew of the Dornier 18 were not killed but were rescued by a Danish trawler attracted to the downed aircraft by the Hudson that had shot it down. Some things were yet to be learned.
Market Harborough, Leicestershire
Vol. 38 No. 2 · 21 January 2016
My late father-in-law was a Luftwaffe pilot flying, we believe, a Dornier 18 (Letters, 19 November 2015 and Letters, 3 December 2015). His mission in the first days of the war was to fly over the Channel, bomb a military target in England and return to Germany. He was reassured that the RAF was effectively non-existent. However, the German intelligence was faulty, the RAF scrambled several Spitfires, and he was shot down. His crew (gunner, radio man and co-pilot) were immediately killed, but because he thought the co-pilot was still alive, and because he was afraid of drowning, instead of bailing out he unfastened his harness and flew the aircraft into the water. He went face-first through the acrylic windscreen.
He was very cut up, but still alive, when a Norwegian trawler fished him out of the water, patched him up as best they could, and delivered him to England. After extensive life-saving surgery, he was sent to a POW camp in Canada and eventually repatriated to his farm in northern Germany, where he lived a long, productive, peaceful life. He never flew again – either as a pilot or commercially. The RAF pilot who shot him down contacted him after the war and they maintained a correspondence. They finally decided to meet in England, but the RAF pilot died before they could.
Cos Cob, Connecticut
Vol. 38 No. 3 · 4 February 2016
I don’t think the plane flown by Cliff Abrams’s father-in-law could have been a Dornier 18, since that was a flying boat used for reconnaissance – in which case making an emergency landing in the sea would have been a piece of cake (Letters, 21 January). It’s much more likely that the aircraft was a Dornier Do 17, known as the ‘Flying Pencil’, a bomber used extensively in the early days of the war.