11 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 31


Bad weather? Nothing to the time when England was the land of fogs


People grumble about the wind and the wet but forget that, until quite recently, the English in general, and Londoners especial- ly, were cursed by that far more dangerous and common scourge, fog. November was the favourite month for what Dickens called 'a London particular', but it might occur at any time, when the wind went down, from mid-October to the end of February. John Evelyn recorded in his diary: 'The thickest And darkest fogg on the Thames that was ever known' in his entry for 15 December 1670, and the fog on Christmas Eve is horri- bly described in A Christmas Carol. The last big London fog, in 1953, just before the Smokeless Fuel Act began to have a decisive impact, led to at least 20,000 deaths, mainly by damaging lungs and bronchial tubes. The London particular began to arrive regularly in the 16th century when coal from the Newcastle field reached the Thames — it was known as 'sea coal' — in growing quanti- ties and at low prices. By Shakespeare's time it was already a problem, and he refers to fogs often. There was some dispute as to its habitual colour. Shakespeare called it black — 'drooping fogge as blacke as Acherbn'. T.S. Eliot calls it 'brown' in The Waste Land. But in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock he writes of 'the yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes', and 'the yellow smoke that . . . licked its tongue into the cor- ners of the evening'. Most people compared it to dingy grey-green — a 'pea-souper'. The truth is, it was any and all of these colours, depending on the light and the time of day. Since a fog, once it got going, could attract like a flypaper and then suspend in the air for days any dust particles around, it might vacuum up powder from the huge brickfields of Essex and Hertfordshire and so acquire a distinct tinge of what Victor Hugo, a hostile visitor (he preferred the Channel Isles when in exile here), called 'Hellish red'. Other exiles, like Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet, tried to paint these polychrome fogs, but it is almost impossible to convey in oils its luminosity, viscosity and wetness.

Perhaps the worst thing about the old fog was its grime. 'Hover through the fog and filthy air' — Shakespeare got it right, as usual. It mixed in its cold and evil stew dirt of all kinds and deposited it on your face and hands, clothes and hair, even in your pockets — as well as in your throat and lungs — in the form of a damp slime which smudged when you touched it. Dickens, in his unfor-

gettable description at the opening of Bleak House of a London particular in 'implacable November weather', writes of 'Smoke lower- ing down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourn- ing, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.' Fog, on touching the ground, became a thin skin of slimy dirt, settling in countless layers, so that, as Dickens wrote, there was `as much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, 40 feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.' In the Fifties a London fog might stretch from east to west 50 miles and cover hun- dreds of square miles. It shut down London Airport for days, sometimes weeks. Taxi- drivers, unless they were broke, stayed at home. The red double-decker buses lost their way. People unearthed old blackout torches and found them useless. You could taste the fog and it was horrible: Browning compared log in my throat' to death — one reason he went to live for good in sunny Italy. Sometimes the visibility was only a few feet or even less. The fog crept up the Thames Valley until it was high in the Chilterns. In one of the worst fogs I can remember, in the late Fifties or even early Sixties, I had to put my paper to press at our printers in High Wycombe and then make my way home to Iver in south Bucks by taxi. We wandered around in the fog for hours, though both the driver and I knew the route well. I found myself getting out to examine the signposts — it was impossible to read them from the side of the road — and even bending down to within a foot of the surface to detect the white line in the middle. Not wishing to try the patience of my driver fur- ther, I walked the last five miles, with great difficulty, stumbling into ditches, finding myself in ploughed fields, cursing and howl- ing, to reach my bed in the small hours.

Nor were fogs confined to the London area. My father always claimed that he broke his nose — it became magisterially Roman — in a fog, stumbling against an outflanker of the Albert Memorial in Manchester. I recall rare but terrible fogs in the Potteries of north Staffordshire when I was a boy. Coal was cheap there in the Thirties, for the ground beneath our feet was riddled with the galleries of pits, and even if you had no money you could gather sackfuls of crackling, explosive flint coal from the slag heaps. So even the poor burned coal in prodigious quantities. There were in those days thou- sands of old bottle-shaped pot banks, where the earthenware and china were baked, and these brick monsters belched forth thick clouds of coal smoke night and day. Some- times the entire sky was filled with a continu- ous belt of fresh, dense smoke, and when the weather changed to still and wet, the blanket was trapped for days and gradually descend- ed to the ground in the form of damp dirt. The smuts were enormous — 'as big as pen- nies', my mother said disgustedly. Yet, oddly enough, I miss the fogs, emo- tionally and aesthetically. There was a favourite place of mine in the Potteries where you could look down on a district called the Sytch which, in its filth, smoke, flames and blackness, was a visual compendi- um of the early Industrial Revolution. At night its thick gloom was lit by the satanic fires of the pot banks and countless coal- burning engines. So here was the Inferno itself, the workmen black as devils too, with the rise and fall of the flames, and mysterious explosions, occasionally lightening the rolling clouds of fog. It might have been painted by de Loutherbourg or Wright of Derby. In London the fogs were less diabolical but they had a powerful element of romance. The visual effect of lamps shining dimly through the soupy vapour, jets of steam quickly swal- lowed up in the humid banks of green cloud, black and grey particles dissolving as they set- tled on the bedrizzled pavements, the velvet opacity of the air smiting your cheek, the powerful sense of secrecy and mystery which the lack of perception imposed — all these things stirred the senses. Such fogs produced a strong whiff of period: they were late-Victo- rian events, Sherlock Holmes weather, Jack- the-Ripper times, when you expected to hear the clip-clop of hansom cabs, and imagined terrible creatures at work, doing unspeakable things in the oleaginous smudgy shadows. I don't want those old fogs back but I am glad they once engulfed me.