PD Smith

London Fog

30 November 2015 | cities, London, Reviewing | Post a comment

Did you know that Herman Melville was the first to compare London’s fog to pea soup, in 1849? No, I didn't either. I found this in Christine Corton's brilliant new history of the Big Smoke - London Fog. It wasn't just a problem in the nineteenth century either. In the eighteenth century Joseph Haydn, who was living in Great Pulteney Street, complained: "There was a fog so thick that one might have spread it on bread. In order to write I had to light a candle as early as 11 o'clock."

But the fogs of the middle of the nineteenth century were especially thick, thicker even than Melville's pea soup "of a gamboge colour". Thomas Miller, a writer, said "it is something like being imbedded in a dilution of yellow peas-pudding, just thick enough to get through it without being wholly choked or completely suffocated. You can see through the yard of it which, at the next stride, you are doomed to swallow, and that is all."

It's thickness and overpowering smell of carbon and sulphur gave it the almost tangible density of food. HV Morton, in The Heart of London (1925), suggested that the city's fog even had a local taste: "The fog has a flavour. Many flavours. At Marble Arch I meet a delicate after-taste like melon; at Ludgate Hill I taste coke."

Bob Hope, the London-born comedian, continued the food theme, joking that Californian smog was "fog with the vitamins removed". By the way, interestingly Corton notes that the word "smog" was never really used at the time to describe London's fog and was only used in retrospect.

Anyway, I enjoyed Corton's highly original study immensely. You can read my review of it on the Guardian's site.

Writers in Sussex revisited

02 November 2015 | My Books, photography, Writers in Sussex | Post a comment

While writing my mother’s eulogy a few months ago, I realized that this year is the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of my father’s book, Writers in Sussex.

Sadly Bernard died at the end of 2005, but it was a wonderful experience working with him on the book, one I’ll always remember. I had just finished a photography course and he was looking for a project to occupy him during his early retirement. Together we hatched a plan for a book that would allow us to explore the beautiful county of Sussex. Once we had the green light from the publisher, we began travelling across the county, tracking down the homes of authors who had lived in Sussex.

Edburton, South Downs, Sussex, med qual, copyright PD Smith

While I photographed the houses, dad would talk to the owners, neighbours and anyone else who might have information about the local literary history. He often included their reminiscences in the book. And if our painstaking research also led us into a pub (in search of information, natch) then so much the better.

Later, when I came to write a book of my own, about the origins of atomic weapons, it was strange to recall the impressive stately home, Uppark, where HG Wells’ mother was house-keeper and where her son was allowed to indulge his passion for reading in the great library. Imagine Wells, the fantastist of the future, living here!

Uppark, HG Wells copy #2

At Burpham, a secluded and ancient village within sight of Arundel castle, we found no less than three houses that had once belonged to authors – the homes of Mervyn Peake, John Cowper Powys and the bee-keeper and popular author Tickner Edwardes. I’ve always loved Peake’s wonderfully strange writing and illustrations. The views near Burpham across the river to Arundel Castle are immensely evocative of Gormenghast and its bizarre inhabitants. It’s a magical part of the world. Peake is buried in Burpham churchyard and a line from one of his poems is on his grave: “To live at all is miracle enough.”


Recently, I was delighted to see that Blake’s Cottage had been bought by the Blake Society and will soon be open to the public. That would have pleased my dad, as he often took his adult education students to see the old flint cottage in Felpham – “the sweetest spot on earth”, according to Blake.

William Blake, Blake's Cottage, Felpham copy

Sadly some of the houses we photographed have now been demolished. Asham House, Beddingham, where Virginia Woolf lived during the First World War, has gone. That’s a great shame as it was a beautiful house. When we visited, the air was filled with the sound of ragged crows calling to each other across the bare tree tops.

Virginia Woolf, Asham House, Beddingham, website

The brick church of St Cuthbert’s in Hove, where the poet Andrew Young was a minister from 1920, was demolished while we were working on the book. I took a photograph of Bernard among the ruins. As a young man, my dad had been a poet and he loved Young’s poetry.

Andrew Young, St Cuthbert's, Hove copy

They were good days, full of conversations about writers and walks across rolling downland, fueled by dark Sussex ales – days I’ll never forget. Thanks dad.

I dare say you can still pick up a second-hand copy of our book. My photos from the book (and a few extra ones) are mostly on Flickr. You can also read the foreword, written by another Sussex writer, Christopher Fry. I’ve uploaded a pdf file of his original text, typed on his 1917 typewriter, here.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, you might be interested in another piece I wrote on the links between place and writing.

Bernard & Trudi on Chanctonbury Ring, Sussex, June 1982, med


28 October 2015 | Paris, photography | Post a comment

Just back home after a much-needed break in Paris. The city of light was more beautiful than ever in the autumn sun...


If you get the chance, go to Victor Hugo's apartment on the Place des Vosges. Fascinating in itself, but worth it just for the views of the exquisite seventeenth-century square outside…

More photos over on Flickr, as ever.

À bientôt...

They All Love Jack

03 October 2015 | crime, Detectives, Reviewing, Watching the Detectives | 2 comments

I've spent the last week reading and reviewing Bruce Robinson's remarkable new book on Jack the Ripper, They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper, which has just been longlisted for the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize. It's a leviathan of a book – more than 800 pages long – and on one level Robinson has written a wonderfully scabrous exposé of the debauched lives of the Victorian aristocracy and upper classes.

Men like Henry James Fitzroy, Earl of Euston, whom Robinson describes with typical bluntness as “a classic pile of shit”, and Prince Albert Victor, son of the Prince of Wales, an “effete little useless pederast” but not, as some Ripperologists have suggested, a candidate for Jack the Ripper himself (“nonsense”, growls Robinson, who claims this theory is so ludicrous it had to be an attempt to divert attention from the real perpetrator).

9780007548897Both men were implicated in a scandal involving young boys at a male brothel in Cleveland Street in 1889. The ensuing cover-up resulted in a journalist and the low-class working boys at the club being sent to jail but the upper class perpetrators, the “top nobs”, going free: “the law had to be made a whore to save the royal arse”. For Robinson this is an example of how the Victorian ruling classes closed ranks to protect their own, during both this scandal and that involving Jack the Ripper: “If the Crown was under threat – be it from a nancy prince or a Monster with a Blade – it was a threat to them all”.

Both the Earl of Euston and Prince Albert Victor were Freemasons and this secretive organisation is central to Robinson’s narrative: “Masonry permeates every fibre of this conundrum”. He does not claim that the concealment of Jack the Ripper was a Masonic conspiracy and he makes it clear that he is not hostile to the Craft: “The Ripper, and not I, is the enemy of Freemasonry.” Instead he blames “Her Majesty’s executive”, who were all Masons: “it was a conspiracy of the System”.

Robinson believes that honest policemen like Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline, who exposed the Cleveland Street brothel and worked on the Ripper case, could have easily caught the Ripper if they had been given full access to the evidence. But the System wouldn’t let Abberline (who was not a Mason) do his job.

As well as a wonderfully angry critique of the Victorian Establishment, Robinson's book is also a forensically detailed account of a cover-up of breath-taking audacity, a criminal conspiracy to conceal one of the worst crimes this country has ever seen. Using the letters sent to the police - which unlike many Ripperologists he believes to be genuine - he creates a portrait of Jack the Ripper as the “Masonic Joker” that is genuinely chilling and convincing. After years of painstaking research, Robinson has also uncovered a new prime suspect, the popular songwriter Michael Maybrick. He makes a powerful case for his guilt.

It has to be said though that after so many years, all we have is circumstantial evidence and newspaper reports, the latter usually dismissed by historians as unreliable. Most of the police files have mysteriously vanished. (Aha! exclaims Robinson.)

But his book is a bloody good read. Read it and make your own mind up about what really happened in the dark streets of Whitechapel at the end of the nineteenth century.

My review is in today's Guardian Review.

Rush-Hour review

30 September 2015 | Reviewing, Watching the Detectives | Post a comment

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few months, but life has been pretty hectic for me. We moved house and then my mother died, which was all rather traumatic, as I guess you can imagine.
Anyway, I've managed to get at least a few book shelves up in my new office (you have to get your priorities right, don't you). Here's the view from my window, although I do now use a slightly more up-to-date word processor than this one...


I'm working hard on Watching the Detectives. For a number of reasons too boring to explain, this book has taken longer than I hoped to research and write. But my publisher, Bloomsbury, is being very understanding and I'm back on the case, tracking down the sleuths. Watch this space, as they say…

In addition to my brief non-fiction reviews which I write for the Guardian, I did one for the TLS recently on Iain Gately's Rush Hour, a fascinating history of commuting. Unfortunately they don't put their reviews online, so here's my version (which may differ slightly from the published one). Enjoy!