Book Review: London Fog
by Christine L. Corton
Harvard University Press, 2015
To the millions of devoted readers of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the opaque and swirling fogs of London will seem as familiar as the 17 steps that lead up to 221b Baker Street. They recall “The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans,” where we’re told, “In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses.” And if that fog, the subject of Christine Corton’s endlessly entertaining new book London Fog: The Biography, seems to live on forever in the popular imagination, that’s surely part of its dubious charm – especially considering the fact that it hasn’t made an appearance in a long generation.
Corton has done a prodigious amount of research into the phenomenon of the “pea-soup” fogs that enveloped London at regular intervals throughout the Industrial Age, as winter prompted everybody in London to set their chimneys belching out smoke that combined with the exhaust of booming factories to form a choking cloud of carbon dioxide, flourine, hydrochloric acid, and sulphur dioxide. These fogs would settle in for days at a time, turning day into night and wreaking havoc with people, livestock, traffic, and simple point-to-point navigation. Corton’s book is merrily chock-full of illustrations, including many from Victorian and Edwardian periodicals that were quick to satirize the peculiar perils of phenomenon.
But the real star attraction in these pages is Corton’s exuberant omniscience about her subject. She seems to have read every tenth-rate serialized novel in the whole of the Victorian and Edwardian literary shrubbery, hunting out every mention and dramatization of the great fogs and in the process giving some truly wretched writers what will surely be the most intelligent reading they’re ever likely to get. And she’s got an equally good ear for reportage, finding piercing quotes from every era of the fog’s domination, including a touching quote from a London schoolboy as late as 1953:
“My mum made me a smog mask, which was layers of muslim and cotton wool, and you tied it over your ears and you’d walk to school. As soon as you got to school they took you inside and closed the doors quickly, and when you took the mask off it was all brown inside, like marmite. You’d have a fresh one to come home with.”
The final act of Corton’s book is the fog of 1952 that ended up killing a total of 750 people and effectively marked the end of the reign of “King Fog.” 1956 saw the passage of the Clean Air Act that worked very quickly to regulate and restrain the industrial belchings that had always been the most vitriolic ingredient in the fogs. But in December of that year one last powerful fog gripped London, and Corton’s account is marvelously fluid in its attentions:
It was not gloomy for everyone, however. Hotels were quick to capitalise on the foggy conditions. Many were fully booked because of the Smithfield Cattle Show, but allowed people to sleep in corridors and on sofas overnight, as they were unable to get home. Smog masks sold out, and one of the companies providing them contemplated setting up a temporary shop at Waterloo railway station to sell more, although the fog had passed before it could do so. A scientist from Washington, DC, flew all the way over to London to experience the fog and almost missed it because his aeroplane was diverted to Frankfurt. When he did eventually arrive in London, just in time to experience the final hours of the fog and collect a few samples of the polluted air, he commented: “You people sure don’t exaggerate … I’ve never seen or tasted anything like it and I didn’t enjoy it one little bit. It set off a beautiful cough.”
London Fog has enjoyed a nicely wide critical reception since its appearance, and it deserves ever accolade it gets. This is tight-focus popular history at its finest.