FOUR – LONDON SMOG
The British like to talk about the weather, and in Britain there is plenty. Most days qualify as a metrological surprise. The weather is either variable, which is typical but even predictable change contains uncertainty, or extreme, such as the present summer and constant sunshine. The people of Britain often feel that the island is targeted by the climate. Acknowledging the weather to someone can carry implications of how a person is or feels. A person can mention disappointing weather whilst suggesting he or she is stoical. Good days can be utilised to demonstrate an ability to appreciate simple pleasures. Unpredictable weather allows us to insist we understand the world still has surprises. When we talk about the weather, we are often self-effacing and modest. The old can use conversations about the weather to convince others that they retain their faculties. Most of the time, though, gossip about the British weather is an excuse for legitimate and harmless moaning. And, like football chat, it passes the time.
Not everyone hated the London smog. Canadian writer Sara Jeanette Duncan wrote 22 novels and liked life in England. She was not a permanent resident of London but almost. Because her husband edited the Indian Daily News, she had to spend some of her life in India. In her 1891 novel, An American Girl In London, Duncan wrote this about the London smog, ‘… yet it gave a kind of solidity and nutriment to the air and made you feel as if your lungs digested it. There was both comfort and satisfaction in that smell.’ If the London smog enhanced the life of Sarah Jeanette Duncan, it did not extend it. She died when she was 61 years old. The cause of her death was described as ‘chronic lung disease’. Today she would have been diagnosed as suffering from emphysema. Nine years after writing about her affection for the London smog, Duncan had to be treated for tuberculosis. The woman also liked a cigarette. Her life did not last long but there was comfort for her from polluted air.
The smog was also popular with painters. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was inspired by the London smog and gloomy light. He was a nihilistic alternative and successor to J M W Turner. The landscape paintings of Whistler were dominated by pollution and muck. Turner was interested in drama either contained or reflected by nature. The daylight dazzles Turner and adds excitement. The smog in the paintings of Whistler contributes weight, denies drama and renders inconsequential what may be happening. The bleakest example is Nocturne Blue And Silver: Battersea Reach. The painting consists of overwhelming grey punctuated by rare pinpoints of muffled light.
‘I am their painter,’ Whistler said of London fogs. And so he was until Claude Monet came along. Both men understood that fog is poetic. It disguises shapes and form and affects our sense of what exists. Fog transforms both the world and us. Monet avoided the bleak grey that Whistler captured in Nocturne Blue And Silver: Battersea Reach and used different colours to capture the changing light around Waterloo Bridge. His painting The Houses Of Parliament, London With The Sun Breaking Through, though, is as gloomy as anything by Whistler. The buildings on the Thames feel disconnected and isolated. The smog in the painting feels like a brake on ambition, amidst the unintended consequence of fog the politics has become remote and impotent.
London smog had various names. Charles Dickens either identified or invented two of them. There is debate about how and why London Particular was adopted. For Victorians ‘particular’ was slang for a mistress. London Particular may refer to the shabby truth that exists behind pretence. London Particular also refers to a brown coloured wine that was imported from Madeira. Either way it appealed to Dickens. Another was London Ivy. The smog left soot particles on clothes and walls. Both names suggest parochial pride and some of the stoicism the British use to discuss their weather. More common amongst ordinary people was the term ‘pea souper’. In the movies London smog is somewhere between grey and white. The real stuff was less pleasant. The particles of soot and the poisonous gas sulphur gave it a strange yellow colour. Pea soup was popular and a stomach filler for the poor. Made from split yellow peas the mush had a coarse texture and felt nutritional. Not just fanciful Canadian writers associated the smog with nutrition.
London smog was not specific to the Victorian age and the period of industrialisation and immigration. The use of sea coal created pollution as early as the 13th Century. King Edward 1 banned the burning of sea coal in 1306. Heralded as the first clean air act the law was ignored by Londoners. Each year the problem became worse but there were spikes in the 17th Century when London expanded and at the end of the 19th Century after industrialisation and the population was swelled by immigration. The location of London did not help. The water on the Thames added mist and fog. London is the warmest place in Britain, something known as an urban heat island. The smog was reluctant to leave.
In 1952 the Great Smog arrived. Public transport ceased during the Great Smog and at least 8000 people died because of respiratory failure. Legislation designed to clean the air offered ordinary people financial incentives to use something other than coal for heating their homes. Some progress was made, and the weather changed but there was another serious smog event ten years later. Gas central heating became popular, and radiators triumphed. The polluted air in British cities today is caused by motor vehicles.
For the Victorians the smog intensified the existing paranoia. Between 1886 and 1888 three street demonstrations involved violent conflict. In 1886 the protesters smashed windows in the affluent West End. In 1887 a demonstration of 30,000 people was charged by infantry, cavalry and the police. 75 people were injured and 400 people were arrested. The affluent worried about unrest and malevolence and how it could be policed under thick smog. Perhaps they also saw the smog as a symbol of the dark desires of the poor. Unable to see the road ahead the affluent felt besieged by poor people and their environment.
Between 1832 and 1854 there were four outbreaks of cholera. The physician Jon Snow was important because he convinced his peers that the cholera was the result of contaminated water. He had to struggle against those who believed the disease was somehow carried by smell, and for many that meant the smell of the smog. In the outbreak of 1854 there were 616 deaths in London because of cholera. The number suggests a modest outbreak but in parts of London the cholera mortality rate was 12.8%. At least the smog was an employment opportunity for young men who carried burning torches and guided gentlemen through the streets of London. These confident and sometimes chatty young men were called linklighters.
Movies and books have tried hard to persuade us that the smog was also an opportunity for Jack the Ripper. I am also culpable. Elsewhere I have referred to the killer sniffing the London fog. In my defence I was referring to the legend and myth. If Jack the Ripper ever did sniff the smog, it was not on those nights he murdered his victims. Although 1888 had plenty of smog the murders were committed on clear nights. One of those nights it rained but there was no smog.
The fanciful like to believe that Jack the Ripper was a gentleman with surgical skills, someone who would have returned to a comfortable home in the West End. In that case he would have avoided the worst of the smog. As it does in most of Britain, the wind in London blows from West to East. The East End also had domestic overcrowding and industrial chimneys. For the wealthy the polluted air of London was their legacy rather than their inheritance. In the Punch cartoon The Nemesis Of Neglect the smog is not just the unintended consequence implied by Monet. The smog is a manifestation of an indifference to poverty. Today smog looks great in movies especially the black and white classics. This would have been no surprise to Whistler and Monet but both of them would have been startled to see who happens to be stepping through the smog and how often the canes of gentlemen disappear around the well-shod feet of the wealthy. Knowing that Jack the Ripper killed on clear nights we are entitled to wonder if he was inspired by open skies or, for those who enjoy being fanciful, the sight of the moon in the sky above his head.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.