Wednesday, November 15, 2017
Chocked capitals: Reflection of today’s Delhi in yesteryear’s London
The above from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is one of the most memorable paragraphs in the history of English literature. Dickens’ poetic description of the growing pollution of Victorian London in the thaws of Industrial revolution finds a timely relevance in twenty-first century Delhi, the country’s capital, as it grasped for breath during the first half of November.
This gives us a perfect occasion to look back at London of the time and see the effect of the infamous London fog and its effects on art, culture and society, as revealed in Christine Corton’s book London Fog.
For centuries, London has been known to out-of-towners as the ‘smoke’ or the ‘big smoke’. The Thames basin, surrounded by low hills, has always been prone to mist. As early as the medieval period this was made worse by domestic fires burning wood and ‘sea-coal’ which was brought by boat from Newcastle. Elizabeth I proclaimed herself to be ‘greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea-coales’. In 1661, John Evelyn complained that sea-coal had turned London into ‘hell upon earth’. Evelyn’s ‘glorious and ancient city’ was often shrouded in ‘clowds of smoake and sulphur, so full of stink and darknesse’. But his far-sighted proposal to move industry outside the city and to create a green belt of aromatic plants and hedges was ignored, and in the coming years, as London expanded to become the largest metropolis the world had ever seen, the city’s fogs grew steadily worse.
By the beginning of the 19th century, some fogs lasted a week and were so dense you could not read during the day, even by a window. The fog made people’s eyes smart and caused breathing difficulties. A tombstone in Kensal Green Cemetery commemorates ‘LR Who died of suffocation in the great fog of London 1814’. By the 1830s, the city’s population was two million and still rising. Not only was every house heated by coal but London was also a major industrial centre, and firms producing everything from beer to chemicals all added to the noxious fumes in the city’s air.
One of the most terrible fogs began on 4 December 1952 as a cold front moved across the capital. The air was very still and the smoke from countless fires hung in the cold air. Soon a thick yellow fog smothered the city like a blanket, extending out for 20 miles from the centre of London. It lasted for a week. “I’ll never forget it,” recalled one Londoner, “because the smog was so thick you really felt like you were walking into a war.” A performance of La Traviata at Sadler’s Wells had to be stopped as the audience couldn’t see the stage. Sports events were cancelled, flights grounded, public transport restricted and ambulance workers and fire-fighters had to walk in front of their vehicles. It became known as the “Great Killer Fog” and may have caused as many as 12,000 deaths.
Corton’s wonderfully detailed and original exploration of foggy London ranges from the earliest mists to the last great pea-souper of 1962.
In 1871, French historian Hippolyte Taine described how ‘a thick, yellow fog fills the air, sinks, crawls on the very ground; at 30 paces a house or a steam-ship look like ink-stains on blotting paper’. After walking around for an hour, he admitted ‘one is possessed by spleen and can understand suicide’. Unsurprisingly, depression was common on foggy days and suicides reached a peak in November. A Portuguese writer believed there was a link between the fog and drunkenness: ‘everyone drinks heavily and incessantly to combat this freezing, fatal fog’. Arthur Rimbaud was in London in 1872 and complained that the ‘yellow fog added the constant sound of coughing to the roar of traffic’. Later he would speak despairingly of the ‘monstrous city’ and its ‘endless night.’
Christine Corton explains
Writing for The Guardian, Christine Corton, explains the origin of London fog:
London is in a natural basin surrounded by hills and its air generally holds moisture because of the river running through it, so it has always had a natural fog problem.
Then came the industrial revolution, with coal fires powering steam-driven factory machines and being used to heat homes. As the city’s industry and population grew apace from the 1820s onwards, smoke mixed with the moist air and on cold days produced a particularly nasty, thick, yellow, sulphurous atmosphere that became trapped in London’s narrow roads and alleyways. People knew from early on that the smog could kill and there were many calls to clean up London’s air.
Many politicians took up the cause but they were generally isolated or maverick figures. It was the mustachioed Conservative MP Gerald Nabarro who turned the tide after the Great Smog of 1952 killed around 12,000 people. He forced through the 1956 Clean Air Act despite government reluctance. (Although a recent episode of TV drama The Crown presented Winston Churchill as the obstacle to change, it was actually the chancellor, Harold Macmillan.)
Why did it take so long? Industrial interests often prevailed. To move to cleaner fuels always meant higher costs and successive governments were reluctant to interfere with the right of domestic consumers to use the fuel they preferred. George Orwell extolled the virtues of the ‘old-fashioned coal fire’ and complained of ‘the noisy minority’ who wanted to do away with it. It was only when gas and electricity became more affordable that legislation could be passed without incurring higher costs to the consumers.
Londoners were also proud of their smogs. Industrial chimneys pumping out smoke signified employment. A coal fire blazing in the hearth meant warmth and comfort. London fog was given a variety of romantic names such as “London ivy” by Charles Dickens or the “pea-souper”, not the green variety but the more traditional yellow potage.
Writers perceived the magic and mystery of London fog and used it extensively. Dickens employed it in the opening pages of Bleak House to signify the obfuscations of the Court of Chancery. Henry James, George Gissing, Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad also used London fog in their works.
Pulp-fiction writers liked to use smog as a means of totally destroying life in London: “One common doom, one common sepulchre of gloomy fog, there was for the richest and the poorest, the best and the worst alike,” wrote one writer of these apocalyptic stories. (Courtesy The Guardian.)