Most readers would doubt that an entire book about fog could be interesting, but Corton, in her first publication, presents an intriguing biography of the weather effect that defined a national character.
We tend to think of life in a pea-souper, or “London particular,” as filled with romantic trysts or dastardly attacks à la Jack the Ripper. What the author really drives home is the deadliness of the winter fogs, during which, over the course of London’s history, countless coal fires burned in the city’s hearths. Homes as well as industries burned soft bituminous coal from Newcastle, one of the dirtiest fuels. The thickness of the fog even led to hundreds of choking deaths. One couldn’t see to walk, horses couldn’t see to carry passengers, and theaters closed because the audiences couldn’t see the performances. One didn’t open a window for ventilation because it would allow the soot into the house. Corton explains the windless London Basin, which has always gathered moisture, the temperature inversions that trapped it, and the makeup of the yellow, sulfurous killer. The author discusses whether it’s smoke or fog, a problem solved by the introduction of the term “smog,” and painters, writers, and other artists become a large part of the narrative. Dickens used fog as a metaphor for London, while Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde used the fog as a cloak for moral degeneracy. Painters found that fog distorted form and perspective, but the impressionists relished it. Monet loved the fog, and Whistler made it his specialty. Oscar Wilde’s quip shows the general attitude to fog: “where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold.” The author also chronicles unsuccessful attempts to clear the air, with industry fighting it and Londoners fearing the loss of their home fires.
An eye-opening and highly readable picture of London’s reactions to the killer fog that has characterized it for centuries.