- - Sunday, January 3, 2016



By Christine L. Corton

Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, $35, 391 pages, illustrated


When the poet W.H. Auden came back to live in England as an American citizen after many decades in the United States, he celebrated his return to his native heath with a poem titled “Thank You, Fog” which contrasted the gentle white wisps in rural Wiltshire with the smog of his previous hometown, New York City. But the eponymous “London Fog” of Cambridge University’s Christine L. Corton’s evocative and far-reaching biography has more in common with that New York fug than with “her unsullied sister” which Auden encountered that misty Christmas the year before his death in 1973. Indeed, the infernal fogs which bedeviled London for more than a century as a result of the industrial revolution combined with the British predilection for coal burning fires were a horrendous combination of fog and smog.

The year before the “Clean Air Act” of 1956 was finally passed, bringing an end to this recurring horror (the last one occurred in December 1962), “a black cloud of smoke, Sulphur and grit hung over the capital smothering in turn each area in a murky blanket of darkness.” Although this one lasted only an afternoon, its menacing intensity was enough to convince some that the end of the world had come. In short, it was as dramatically sinister as a total eclipse of the sun.

Imagine then the impact of the event of December 4-9, 1952, with atmosphere universally described as thick and yellow. But it contained so much dirt that, as Ms. Corton writes, “People had to bathe and change clothes when they reached home after traveling through the fog. The results confirmed just how many sooty particles were in the outside air: ‘I went and had a bath and I couldn’t believe it. When I got out there was about an inch of grime round the edge of the bath and all my clothes were filthy.’”

Ms. Corton is adept at providing details to make us understand just what this noxious stuff was like. Not only were people stuck at airports and train stations, but shipping on the Thames, which was considerable back then, came to a standstill. Not only were outdoor sporting events, like football and horse racing, canceled because spectators could not view the action, but this fog had such a preternatural capacity to infiltrate indoor spaces that audiences in theaters and concert halls could not see the stages and so performances had to be stopped and tickets refunded. When you read testimony that it made your throat feel as if it contained iron filings, well, you can begin to imagine what it must have been like to endure.

And if it wrought havoc on people’s throats, imagine what it did to their lungs. Weekly deaths increased by more than 250 percent: “The mortuaries quickly filled up. During the first three months of 1953 there were 8625 more deaths than expected.” Statistics are one thing, but a businessman from Hertfordshire reports that after attending “a dinner held on December 5 in London: ‘Fog and fumes penetrated the large dining hall in the hotel that night’ by December 7, he said ‘the fog had me in its grip, and I perforce had to stay in bed for the next fortnight with a bad attack of bronchitis.’ He admitted that it was not until three months later that he felt fully fit again.”

London’s fog found its way into the arts as well and Ms. Corton is a knowledgeable and intuitive cicerone. Painters like Monet and Whistler were fascinated by its effects and managed to capture the changes it brought to buildings and landscape in their own inimitable fashion. T.S. Eliot’s images of the city’s fog are some of the most indelible in his poetry and novelists delighted in describing it and its impact on atmosphere and mood. Ms. Corton devotes considerable space to its importance in John Galsworthy’s “Forsyte Saga” and in Charles Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop,” “Our Mutual Friend” and, of course “Bleak House,” where it is perhaps the most important “character” in the novel. And she goes far beyond these usual suspects as she introduces us to it in such lesser-known but more modern luminaries as Henry Green and Lynne Reid Banks.

Among Ms. Corton’s many fine qualities as writer and biographer is the way she bridges the notorious two cultures, which C.P. Snow provocatively said divided Britain into scientific and literary worlds, never the twain to meet. Her scientific analysis of soot particles and sulfur dioxide is as authoritative as her knowledge of the part played by London fog in literature, movies, and painting. As she moves back and forth between the scientific and artistic spheres, seemingly effortlessly but nonetheless revealing her assiduous research and tireless mental roving, she succeeds in making her narrative as clear as her subject is murky, as informative and enlightening as it is opaque and chokingly dark.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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