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.

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