Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Smoke

One of the nicknames for London was "The Smoke" because of the dense fog that often enveloped the city. The fog was created by a combination of weather and the coal smoke from fires heating just about every home. From a review of London Fog: The Biography:
.... Coal fires were common and necessary. High in sulfur, they created a yellow fog that became increasingly thick and persistent as London became an economic hub in the 19th century. Responding to a crescendo of public concern, Parliament began to pass bills aimed at reducing smoke in the 1820s, but as Corton writes, “it was difficult to interfere with the right of the householder to use coal for heating and cooking, and there were no satisfactory alternative sources of energy.”

Because it was omnipresent and unavoidable, fog was continually written about—providing a descriptive record that evocatively delineated London fog’s “biography.” In 1853, one Londoner described it as “grey-yellow, of a deep orange.” .... By the mid-19th century its uglier character had emerged under the guise of a “pea-souper,” since that’s what its color resembled. Visiting London in 1849, Herman Melville wrote in his journal of “the old fashioned pea soup London fog—of a gamboge [orange-yellow] color.” Newspaper accounts also described how the city’s population was “periodically submerged in a fog of the consistency of pea-soup.” ....

.... Fog instills the air with a sense of secrecy through its “swirling” presence and weighty gloom. It was a terrifying world where women walked the streets and abandoned children huddled in doorways. It was a place, in the late 1880s, where Jack the Ripper roamed and slaughtered with impunity.

In his fictional world, Arthur Conan Doyle certainly embraced fog’s possibilities to enhance the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. At one point, Holmes reflects on the opportunities fog offers London criminals:
Look out this window, Watson. See how the figures loom up, are dimly seen, and then blend once more into the cloud-bank. The thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle, unseen until he pounces and then evident only to his victim.
Fog appears early in The Sign of Four: “It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock. ...The lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement.” .... [more]
These thick and dangerous fogs lasted right up to the middle of the last century. One of the worst and deadliest occurred in December, 1952.
....For five days, the Great Smog paralyzed London and crippled all transportation, except for its Underground. Boat traffic on the Thames came to a halt. Flights were grounded and trains cancelled. Even during the middle of the day, drivers turned on their headlights and hanged their heads out the windows in an attempt to inch ahead through the yellow gloom. Many found the exercise futile and abandoned their cars. Conductors grasping flashlights and torches walked in front of the iconic double-decker buses to guide drivers nosing down the city streets. Wheezing pedestrians groped their ways around the city’s neighborhoods and tried not to slip on the greasy black ooze that coated sidewalks. By the time they returned home, with their faces and noses blackened by the air, Londoners resembled coal miners. .... [more]
One of Margery Allingham's best Albert Campion mysteries is The Tiger in the Smoke published in 1952 and set in London. The title is probably based on the Holmes quotation above: "The thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle, unseen until he pounces and then evident only to his victim." Allingham was a member of the Detection Club and would have been very familiar with the Holmes canon. From the first page of the first chapter:
.... The fog was like a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water. It had hung over London all day and at last was beginning to descend. The sky was yellow as a duster and the rest was a granular black, over-printed in grey and lightened by occasional slivers of bright fish colour as a policeman turned in his wet cape.

Already the traffic was at an irritable crawl. By dusk it would be stationary. To the west the Park dripped wretchedly and to the north the great railway terminus slammed and banged and exploded hollowly about its affairs. Between lay winding miles of butter-coloured stucco in every conceivable state of repair.

The fog had crept into the taxi where it crouched panting in a traffic jam. It oozed in ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over the two elegant young people who sat inside. ....
Shroud of London | The Weekly Standard, The Killer Fog That Blanketed London, 60 Years Ago - History in the Headlines