Fog has no memory

Jonathan Meades

  • The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Postwar Britain by Lynda Nead
    Yale, 416 pp, £35.00, October 2017, ISBN 978 0 300 21460 4

Lynda Nead’s new study of the ways in which postwar Britain was represented by what was not yet called its media is tirelessly oblique. She contrives to see everything through the reductionist lenses of colour and colourlessness. She leans heavily on Raymond Williams’s notion of a ‘structure of feeling’ which supposedly defines the ‘particular and characteristic colour of a period’. What Williams intended by ‘colour’ was ever-changing mood, constant only in its intangible slipperiness. The idea demands faith in a collective consciousness, evanescent, resistant to analysis and not capable of articulation save by example. Mood is closely related to, if not exactly synonymous with, the received idea or la pensée unique or, heaven help us, the zeitgeist – save that it has not quite arrived. Vagueness is hardly explained by further vagueness. Searching for something tangible to hang on to, Nead takes Williams’s ‘colour’ literally: skin colour, food colour, bombsite colour, housecoat colour (really), Sunday afternoon colour, kitchen sink colour and, most insistently, meteorological colour.

Roy Ward Baker’s ‘Tiger in the Smoke’ (1956)
Roy Ward Baker’s ‘Tiger in the Smoke’ (1956)

In The Tiger in the Smoke, fog and smog are ubiquitous. They are past and present, a continuum from the High Victorian age to the New Elizabethan age, which was also, according to Nead, the first neo-Victorian age. They possess a palette that is specific to them and to the gobs of phlegm they provoke, known in Partick and Govan as Glasgow Oysters (London Peculiars and London Particulars excite more genteel expectorations). The ‘characteristic colour’ she assigns to the period – 1945-60 – is a foggy sort of greyish brown. Dickens’s monumental fog in Bleak House is perhaps correctly reckoned by Nead to be metaphorical. She doesn’t state what it’s a metaphor for. Presumably the torpid, sclerotic chaos of Chancery. But the impasto fog and smog (a coinage not made till 1904) were also real. They were insouciant evidence of what we now recognise as the grubby dawn of the Anthropocene.

The questionable maxim in Our Mutual Friend that England suffers a ‘national dread of colour’ is surprisingly overlooked by Nead. It should be there because it explicitly supports one of her disputable cardinal points. It should also alert us that Dickens was a fabulist for whom exaggeration was a norm. His most engrossing works were hyperrealist and chromatically inaccurate. He lived in an age of polychromatic brickwork, dazzlingly bright inflammable crinolines, gilded smoking rooms, saturated ottomans, luminous painting, garish advertisement hoardings and the Great Exhibition. Its gaudy vulgarity appalled such aesthetes as William Morris and, retrospectively, Nikolaus Pevsner, who wrote of Victorian manufacture’s ‘rank growth’.

Dickens was true neither to life nor to his age. He was a cartoonist rather than a documentarist – not that the veracity of documentarists is to be trusted any more than that of cartoonists. He railed against social ills of his own invention, and living conditions that had disappeared by the time he described them. The adjective ‘Dickensian’ is so widely applied that it has become meaningless: urchins, smuts, back-to-backs, urban indigence, foundlings, gluttony, gross sentimentality – they all answer to it. To evoke a society through reference to its most distinguished, most protean artists is usually a hazardous enterprise. In seeking a record or snapshot it disregards the manipulations, the omissions, the wild anachronisms and the very inventions that cause the artist to be reckoned ‘great’.

Nead is apprised of this but sometimes forgetful. She has a taste for the exceptional. She admires Bill Brandt, noting that as well as making exquisite photographs he collected Victorian furniture, which often appears in the photographs. She goes on to say that these two endeavours combine to signal ‘a deep longing for an essential national heritage and identity’. She illustrates this claim with several works that exhibit Brandt’s sedulous mises en scène. One is of Shoreditch backyards. Brandt’s demonstrative art mitigates the photograph’s efficacy as illustration. It is specific, ordered, an obvious pastiche of Gustave Doré, rather than displaying the generalised ‘Victorianism’ which Nead finds lurking everywhere.

By piling film upon painting upon print upon novel Nead exaggerates this fashion’s role in the ‘structure of feeling’. ‘Victorianism’s extended cultural reach’ evidently strained every sinew. It apparently infects the 1947 film of Brighton Rock, based on Graham Greene’s novel of 1938. With the exception of Ida’s Pierrot troupe there is little in the film to suggest any link to Victorian England. But then the ‘structure of feeling’ is a woolly conceit, almost a faith. Proof isn’t required. A Brighton film of two years earlier, Robert Hamer’s delightfully sinister Pink String and Sealing Wax, set, to judge by the costumes, in the 1880s, does indeed have ‘Victorianism’ written all over it, as does Hamer’s subsequent Kind Hearts and Coronets. But neither of these is scrutinised by Nead, maybe because they are pure period pieces and – I surmise – the conditions for a ‘structure of feeling’ are only satisfied if there is a perceived reciprocity between present and past. One has, perhaps, to be an initiate of ‘feeling’ to detect this temporal exchange. When Nead describes Miss Havisham’s Satis House in David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations (1946) as a ‘Gothic bombsite’ – which it wasn’t – we are assured that it exhibits the ‘colour of the period’, which seems to mean low-key lighting, glutinous blackness and overwrought decor.

Cinema is as much an auditory medium as a visual one and should be treated as such. Great Expectations’s score is in the mid-century, modernist-lite idiom created when the Second Vienna School was instructed not to upset the children. The dialogue is at functional pitch, tending towards Classics Illustrated. Nead calls this adaptation ‘Dickens Noir’, an epithet which would be more useful had Noir not become such a hackneyed suffix. ‘What,’ she wonders, ‘did this fabulous cinematography mean to postwar audiences and how did it relate to the greyscale aesthetics of the fog and the bombsites?’ The answer, probably, is very little indeed, at least consciously. Cinema was mass spectacle, an entertainment. The habit of analysis had yet to be widely learned. Tellingly, The Tiger in the Smoke’s copious notes refer to few sources contemporary with the films Nead discusses. There was no British equivalent of the theorist André Bazin. British film studies were still in utero. Lindsay Anderson and Gavin Lambert didn’t start the student magazine Sequence till a year after Great Expectations appeared. Anderson, it goes without saying, despised David Lean.

Another energetic hater, Wyndham Lewis, wrote of London in his novel Rotting Hill (1951): ‘a monstrous derelict of a city, built upon a bog and cursed with world famous fogs: every home in it has a crack from the blast of a bomb and dies at last of chronic dry rot.’ This was a commonplace opinion. Anti-urbanism had been an English (though not Scottish) norm since the 1870s. The city was reckoned toxic. The suburbs were favoured because they were thought to offer safe shelter and an unpolluted atmosphere. Rotting Hill appeared in the year of the Festival of Britain, when the middle class’s stuttering reclamation of the inner city still lay some years in the future. That demographic shift, ‘gentrification’ (Ruth Glass’s coinage of 1964), was at least partly occasioned by the 1956 Clean Air Act. The Act’s effects were, however, only gradually noticed. One of my teenage pleasures in the mid-1960s was getting lost in peasoupers the colour of a flasher’s mac. The fog, pace countless cinematic representations, didn’t swirl. It was an endless static wall to be walked through.

Nead’s title, The Tiger in the Smoke, is lifted from a thriller by Margery Allingham from 1952, which was made into a film four years later. London is a site of danger and menace. Hark, hark, the dogs do bark – a band of peripatetic buskers, stumbling in single file, begs importunately and steals. Its leader (played by a choice cut of period beefcake called Tony Wright) is a murderer. They might be revenants from a Neue Sachlichkeit painting. Fog permeates every shot. It seeps into houses. According to Nead: ‘The fogs of the 1950s were different … from the fogs of Conan Doyle and Henry James. They drew on the accumulated meanings of the Victorian fogs, but they were also distinctively modern.’ This is, at best, questionable, quasi-anthropomorphic, ascribing to fogs memory and mimetic capacities.

Nead goes on to grant meaning to other inanimate objects: immigrants’ clothes, knick-knacks, domestic appliances, packaging. She seems unwilling to accept that the world is neither meaningful nor meaningless but that it just is. The ‘kitchen sink’ painters insisted that they had no political or social programme, that they did not constitute a ‘school’. Too late. As Nead observes, they were ‘rendered ideological by the critical discourse of the period’, that’s to say, by John Berger’s insistence that they were ‘engaged’ whether they liked it or not. Their drab everyday subjects and their exaggerated reprise of the Camden Town Group’s brand of murky domestic realism lent plausibility to Berger’s interpretation.

‘Rendered ideological’ is the fate of just about everything Nead surveys. Sundays are polarised as slow hours to be fought over by the sabbatarians of the Lord’s Day Observance Society on one side and, on the other, just about everyone else save enslaved ‘mothers’ who spent the morning preparing a contender for the three most depressing words in the language, Traditional Sunday Lunch. She quotes part of a letter to Picture Post from the Reverend Marcus Morris who refers to the society’s members as ‘cranks and fanatics’: there is no indication Nead knows that Morris was the founder and publisher of Eagle, the most instructive of 1950s comics and quite the most colourful. Mass Observation’s investigations into behaviour on Sundays were perhaps not widespread but they did give that organisation’s ‘reporters’ something to occupy themselves with. Nead’s intriguing assumption that ‘social investigation and spying might … be numbered amongst the customary activities of the English on postwar Sundays’ suggests that net curtains across the country hid an army of prying neighbours to rival the Stasi’s.

This does not accord with my memory of Sundays in the 1950s. There was, for any child of the petite bourgeoisie, a lot of sitting in a car outside pubs with uncrisp crisps and a hallucinatorily bright fizzy drink. But there was also the beach at Friars Cliff (friable, shifting lagoons), the western side of the New Forest (beware amanita muscaria) and Huckles Brook, the ruins at Wardour, at Great Witley and Highcliff, the entire populace of Birmingham parked on the bank of the Avon at Evesham (IPA from the bottle and pedalos). Sundays were fun, and they culminated in sugared, diluted whisky.

Bert Hardy’s model for a Picture Post feature entitled ‘Big City Loneliness’, a state exacerbated on Sundays, was the young Katharine Whitehorn, described by Nead as ‘a journalist who went on to work for Picture Post’, which is a bizarrely emaciated description of one of the most celebrated journalists of her era. The reliance on Picture Post as a point of reference is both extensive and partial: Nead uses it intelligently, though she is perhaps disinclined to acknowledge that its world-view was as parti pris as that of, say, the Daily Telegraph. She also overlooks the defining role its former journalists played in the establishment of BBC television’s reportorial and documentary conventions. Kenneth Allsop, Fyfe Robertson, James Cameron, Trevor Philpot, Robert Kee and Slim Hewitt (‘the scourge of Nuneaton’), all worked for it. The roles of writer, photographer and even picture editor often overlapped.

‘Memories of the late 1940s and 1950s are monochrome,’ according to Nead. ‘People recall these years through veils of mist and shades of grey, conjuring images of black and white photography or newsreel.’ Do they? People, I suspect, have been so often told that this was the palette attached to that decade and a half that they unquestioningly accept it. It is an old chromatic cliché. Edward VI’s coat of arms is twice displayed in Sherborne, a small town in Dorset. One, very grand, is above a gateway. The second, smaller and framed by fluted ionic pilasters, is above a door in a courtyard; its heraldic beasts look doltishly rancorous. Both devices are painted gold (or), muted cherry red (gules) and a chalky gouache-like royal blue (azure). The last is a colour seldom used for many years, and rarely encountered. It seems to be faintly bleached but then it always was. When I do see it – and it has to be precise – it is an instant trigger of distant infancy. I am sharply returned to the 1950s, to my child self. I am once again, for a fugitive moment, a New Elizabethan.

This hue, which works on the colour receptor in my brain, is impervious to simulation. It is unknown both to Pantone (though it isn’t that far from 18-4537) and to the British Colour Council’s 1951 chart, which included ‘Nigger Brown’. An RGB toy on my computer fails to conjure a plausible likeness: all it can manage is an approximation and, anyway, a surprise staged by oneself for oneself is no surprise. It is evident that new means of reproduction inhibit accurate imitation. Colours are amended beyond recognition or disappear: the technology which determines them is overtaken, they go out of fashion, they fade, they self-destruct like early acrylics. Even today’s ‘black and white’ – aesthetic choice or affectation rather than necessity – is instantly distinguishable from that of Picture Post. Not just because of the tones of the magazine’s chiaroscuro photography, which, like cinematic neo-expressionism, derived from Weimar and the diaspora after 1933, but also its film stock, its printing methods, its page layout and its paper quality – soft and shiver-making like high-grade blotting paper.

As a vehicle for discussing the experience of West Indian immigrants, Nead’s choice of Sapphire (1959) – a ‘colour bar problem film’ according to the BFI’s Monthly Film Bulletin – is odd because its specificities are evidently unusual. A thriller about a murdered ‘lilyskin’, a mixed-race woman who can pass for white, it is however useful as a means of demonstrating clumsy liberal patronisation of black people. The Daily Worker’s critic Nina Hibbin wrote that the film ‘is perilously near to becoming a justification [for a colour bar]’. The same producer and director, Michael Relph and Basil Dearden, burdened with good intentions, would, a couple of years later in Victim, demonstrate the same clumsy liberal patronisation of homosexuals. Whether these didactic exhibitions of minoritarian decency and special pleading were anything more than worthy exercises in self-congratulation is moot. Picture Post, again, is more pertinent, asking: ‘Is There a British Colour Bar?’ To which the answer must have been yes – but with qualifications. The sociologist Michael Banton believed there was unquestionable racial discrimination while holding the view that ‘women attracted to coloured men appear to be nymphomaniacs.’ The fear of the stranger, of the other, of miscegenation and its outcome, was profound: ‘fruit of frightful mésalliances’ as the novelist Howard Spring charmingly put it. Long before the Windrush docked at Tilbury there had been, over centuries, many immigrants to Britain. Spring was referring to Tiger Bay, where, in the great tradition of tribalism, there were race riots in 1919. Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, sometime editor of the Field, observed in 1940: ‘There is not much Hampshire in Southampton. Voices from every corner of the globe but few, very few, from Hampshire.’ The ethnic make-up of the port had seldom fomented racial violence. In the period Nead covers that would come later on, in Notting Hill (more precisely Notting Dale), the ‘little Napoli’ of Colin MacInnes’s 1959 novel Absolute Beginners, which Nead doesn’t mention. Perhaps because it is essentially an observational feature article posing as a novel, it pins down ‘the particular and characteristic colour of a period’ with a sympathetic deftness that eludes Nead’s roster of sociologists, race relations writers, dress historians, cultural historians, design historians and history historians.