Review by Mike Sansbury, manager of The Grove Bookshop, Ilkley

London Fog – The Biography by Christine L. Corton, published in hardback by Harvard priced £22.95.

THE terms pea-souper and London particular have become familiar to us all, partly from excessive viewing of the Basil Rathbone-era Sherlock Holmes films, and our glorious capital is frequently referred to as the smoke but, apart from a hazy idea of foggy days and flickering gaslights, how much do we actually know about the true nature of this atmospheric phenomenon? This is the mission undertaken by Christine Corton, an academic and former publisher who, without the aid of lanterns or linklighters, has produced an entertaining and well-illustrated guide to the life and death of London’s own particular meteorological trademark.

To some extent this book reads as a standard biography, beginning with the birth of heavy fog around 1840 and progressing through the mist towards the fateful arrival of the Clean Air Act of 1956, which hastened its demise. The author has a keen eye for anecdote and must have had the time of her life researching mentions of murk in the books and correspondence of the great and good over some three hundred years – although the true pea-soup fog appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, there is much evidence of general gloom brought on by London’s low-lying position as far back as 1661, when the diarist John Evelyn produced Fumifugium, a call for smoke-producing industry to be relocated beyond London. He denounced “that pernicious Smoake which sullyes all…that it lights.” Over a century later the composer Haydn blamed the smog for a bout of what he called English rheumatism.

It was with the Industrial Revolution, however, that fog and smoke became overpowering; the 1840s saw such an increase in factories, coal fires and general heavy industry that daylight became a rare luxury. There is a fascinating chapter on “The View from Abroad,” showing just how idiosyncratic these conditions were. French, American and Japanese visitors take turns to express their amazement at the overwhelming haze; the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, working as U.S. Consul in Liverpool, remarks on visiting the capital in 1857; “This would have been a bright, sunny day, but for the interference of the fog; I actually saw the sun looking red and rayless, much like the millionth magnification of a new half-penny.”

As well as personal accounts, the book is stuffed with contemporary illustrations, from Punch cartoons highlighting the dangers of employing guides known as linklighters (often in league with pickpockets) to paintings by Monet, Whistler and Turner. My particular favourites are by a Japanese artist, Yoshio Markino, whose Edwardian illustrations blend Art Nouveau with traditional Japanese style, like a cross between Hokusai and Toulouse Lautrec. The subject matter obviously places limitations on the palette, but despite the absence of brilliant colour the pages glow with sepia, gold and grey, bringing a suitably atmospheric touch of misty gloom to the book. There is also much use of Victorian slang which adds a touch of contemporary realism.

One cannot mention fog and London without encountering Dickens, who merits a chapter to himself. This, ironically, I found the book’s weak spot; it reads a bit like an essay entitled, “Discuss the importance of fog in the works of Charles Dickens.” The great man’s words speak for themselves, making any analysis superfluous. This quibble aside, Christine Corton has produced an illuminating work which cuts through the gloom and lights our way to understanding the true nature and history of one of London’s defining features, one which has only abated in the last fifty years.