City in the Dark

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. 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, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow flakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

Yoshio Markino: Fog: Ladies Crossing Piccadilly, first published in W. J. Loftie’s The Colour of London, 1907
Christine L. Corton
Yoshio Markino: Fog: Ladies Crossing Piccadilly, first published in W. J. Loftie’s The Colour of London, 1907

The well-known opening sentences of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House describe a peculiar phenomenon of English weather that lasted from Elizabethan times to the early 1960s, with peak fogginess occurring in the later nineteenth century. These thick Dickensian fogs came to characterize London, so much so that visiting foreigners expected them and even felt a bit shortchanged if fog was absent. In 1956, when Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin came to London on a state visit from Moscow, he was tactful in congratulating his official hosts—as it turned out prematurely—on the change in London weather brought about by the recent Clean Air Act. “London fog,” he said, “seems to be a thing of the past.” But one senses a tinge of disappointment in Bulganin’s lauding of London’s clear blue skies and sunny weather. London without fog wasn’t London anymore.

What exactly were these London fogs that some of us remember from way back in our childhoods as a source both of terror and enchantment? Alongside the Thames Embankment the fog became so dense you couldn’t see your little mittened hand held out in front of you. London fog created a rather Lewis Carroll topsy-turvy world of anarchy and fantasy as bus conductors walked ahead of their own vehicles to guide them through the murkiness. A man leading a performing elephant to a Christmas circus at Olympia got lost on the Haymarket.

In 1952, in an arguably all too symbolic episode, fog infiltrated the chamber of the House of Commons at Westminster and government business was rushed through in a panic. A Sadler’s Wells performance of La Traviata was abandoned when the audience could no longer see the stage. Bob Hope, in his comic act in London in the 1950s, said, “I’m sorry I was late getting here, I was lost in the fog…. I wanted to whistle for a cab, but I couldn’t find my mouth.” The Miltonic concept of “darkness visible” takes on a whole new meaning as Hope dimly makes out a light shining through the fogginess, which turns out to be the end of his cigarette.…

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