Friday, August 27, 2010

A real pea-souper, make no mistake...

It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither.

Since getting back from the sauna heat of the US, the weather in London has been nothing but dire. So damp it pervades your bones, skies the colour of dull aluminium, a cool wind shaking leaves from the trees prematurely - autumn in all but name. I couldn't be happier. I love the sun, but I also love to feel a cold blast of air in my face every now and then, and is there a more comforting sound than lying in bed while the rain taps gently yet insistently on your window? In one US cafe I remember mounting a stout defence of the English climate, or what passes for one. 'I'd sure like to experience one of those London fogs,' the lady behind the counter said.

I didn't have the heart to tell her London is no more foggy than LA these days. But it's strange how the idea of London fog has seeped into the US consciousness. Their spiffiest raincoat is called London Fog, after all. One wag over here said it was like Indians paying homage to the Old Country with a very fine brand of sari called Unreliable Plumbing System. Maybe it was all those Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies where the fog swirled and curled under gaslit streetlamps, or the works of Charles Dickens, from which the quote above comes.

The fact is, like my patron in the cafe, I'd love to have experienced a real pea-souper, or London Particular as the fog that periodically enveloped the capital became known (in a sort of reverse branding, a brand of pea soup was launched called London Particular...). They were little fun for the city's inhabitants, especially for the infirm, but there is something enticing as well as unsettling about the idea of being in a teeming city of millions where you can't see more than a few yards in front of your face.

The last great pea-souper was in  December 1952, lasting four days, from which all of these remarkable photographs come. It brought the city to the proverbial standstill, even working its way inside. A performance of La Traviata at Sadler's Wells was cancelled because of the audience's incessant coughing. Film theatres closed for the same reason and because no one could see the screen. Dog racing at White City was postponed because the dogs couldn't see the mechanical hare. It got so bad that people couldn't see their own feet, and stumbled around lost, the absence of any kind of visible landmark as a guide rendering them for all purposes blind. The sulphur stink that made its way into every house. It would make a fabulous backdrop to a crime novel (and who knows, it might...)

Of course, with the reduced visibility came choking, thick air. The pea-soupers were no natural phenomenon; they were caused by millions of people and businesses belching acrid, coal-burned smoke into the atmosphere. So many people fell ill the hospitals struggled to cope, not helped by ambulances that clanked and wailed through the fogbound streets, unable to locate the sick and needy to whom they had been summoned. It is estimated 4000 people died. Which is why we don't see them any more. The authorities ushered in various acts banning black smoke and forbade the burning of anything but smokeless fuels. The London air, thankfully for those of us who live here, is probably as clean now as it was 200 years ago, pre-Industrialisation. But am I the only one who doesn't wonder what it must have been like to have felt their way through that impermeable fog?


Dan - Friday


  1. How interesting it would have been to be in London during those days of 1952. And I'm not surprised that we don't see those 4000 people who died!

  2. anna from connecticutAugust 27, 2010 at 9:17 AM

    Hi Dan,

    What a feeling I experienced when I read this article. I can see Nigel walking the streets of London, pondering the past, in a "pea souper". Somehow it just fits in so perfectly with your wonderful, unique way of creating.
    I love to hear your thoughts on your vacation in the US. Have a great day.

  3. LOL

    One of the first ´facts´I learned about London was the eternal smog - and that must have been in the late 1970s. And of course Dickens and Sherlock Holmes reinforced the impression.

  4. Best fog book was Christianna Brand's "Fog of Doubt" (US) aka "London Particular. You could taste it.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Laurie, I'll check that out...