London Fog: The Biography

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9780674088351: London Fog: The Biography
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In popular imagination, London is a city of fog. The classic London fogs, the thick yellow “pea-soupers,” were born in the industrial age of the early nineteenth century. The first globally notorious instance of air pollution, they remained a constant feature of cold, windless winter days until clean air legislation in the 1960s brought about their demise. Christine L. Corton tells the story of these epic London fogs, their dangers and beauty, and their lasting effects on our culture and imagination.

As the city grew, smoke from millions of domestic fires, combined with industrial emissions and naturally occurring mists, seeped into homes, shops, and public buildings in dark yellow clouds of water droplets, soot, and sulphur dioxide. The fogs were sometimes so thick that people could not see their own feet. By the time London’s fogs lifted in the second half of the twentieth century, they had changed urban life. Fogs had created worlds of anonymity that shaped social relations, providing a cover for crime, and blurring moral and social boundaries. They had been a gift to writers, appearing famously in the works of Charles Dickens, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, and T. S. Eliot. Whistler and Monet painted London fogs with a fascination other artists reserved for the clear light of the Mediterranean.

Corton combines historical and literary sensitivity with an eye for visual drama―generously illustrated here―to reveal London fog as one of the great urban spectacles of the industrial age.

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About the Author:

Christine L. Corton is a Senior Member of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and a freelance writer. She worked for many years at publishing houses in London.

Review:

Christine Corton takes a subject that is now scarcely more than a heritage item―like gaslight and hansom cabs―and puts it where it belongs among the great public-health movements of the 19th and 20th centuries... Of course, fog was not solely a public-health problem. With the help of wonderful contemporary illustrations, Corton vividly describes the chaos it brought―pedestrians groping, traffic crawling, accidents, crime and drunkenness soaring. The melting, blurring, looming transformations of fog seemed to symbolize the dissolution of society itself. Writers saw the possibilities, and Corton pursues their metaphorical fogs through every kind of moral, psychological and social disintegration. Charles Dickens, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, all are here―plus a mass of fascinating and forgotten popular literature―their cultural meanings perceptively analyzed... This is a rich and multifaceted book. (The Economist)

Brilliant...Corton has a deft historical, literary and visual eye. While tracing the birth, maturity and death of fog, she pays careful attention to the ways it affected everyday lives and locations...But her real interest is in the way fog played in the imagination. For centuries, she shows, novelists, essayists, cartoonists and painters used fog as a metaphor for human relationships and the moral order...Corton’s book is an unsentimental and elegant reflection on a world that has passed. (Joanna Bourke Daily Telegraph)

Engrossing and magnificently researched...Corton’s book combines meticulous social history with a wealth of eccentric detail. Thus we learn that London’s ubiquitous plane trees were chosen for their shiny, fog-resistant foliage. And since Jack the Ripper actually went out to stalk his victims on fog-free nights, filmmakers had to fake the sort of dank, smoke-wreathed London scenes audiences craved. It’s discoveries like these that make reading London Fog such an unusual, enthralling and enlightening experience. (Miranda Seymour New York Times Book Review)

Endlessly entertaining... Corton has done a prodigious amount of research into the phenomenon of the ‘pea-soup’ fogs that enveloped London at regular intervals throughout the Industrial Age... Corton’s book is merrily chock-full of illustrations... But the real star attraction in these pages is Corton’s exuberant omniscience about her subject. She seems to have read every tenth-rate serialized novel in the whole of the Victorian and Edwardian literary shrubbery, hunting out every mention and dramatization of the great fogs and in the process giving some truly wretched writers what will surely be the most intelligent reading they’re ever likely to get. And she’s got an equally good ear for reportage, finding piercing quotes from every era of the fog’s domination... London Fog has enjoyed a nicely wide critical reception since its appearance, and it deserves every accolade it gets. This is tight-focus popular history at its finest. (Steve Donoghue Open Letters Monthly)

The idea of a biography of fog in London might initially appear a doubtful enterprise, but in Christine Corton’s capable hands it works brilliantly. The liveliness of metropolitan fog is beautifully charted here in a long chronology from the Stuart era to the Clean Air Acts of the 1950s to 1990s...[A] most extraordinarily rich collection of material from scientific, journalistic, literary, humorous, artistic and medical sources...She has created a history of fog’s material and immaterial culture...The text is interspersed with some astonishing visual material, appropriately placed, making the book a visual feast especially of little-known artworks, caricatures and photographs of great beauty. Corton’s use of the perceptions of foreign visitors, especially those from China and Japan, is revelatory...London Fog is not just a literary exercise; it also charts the long trajectory of a deeply serious public health matter that we have yet to confront, as we should, once again...This fine book has real substance, generously shared, and is very timely indeed. (Ruth Richardson Times Higher Education)

[Corton’s] fascinating history traces London’s unique brand of photochemical smog from its surprisingly early birth in the 13th century, when complaints about the burning of ‘sea coal’ in London hearths began, through its malign maturity in the 19th, to its death throes in the second half of the 20th...The many well-chosen images in London Fog include works by minor painters of London scenes and by various illustrators, photojournalists and cartoonists playing on the terror, confusion and comedy caused by fog. These add greatly to the interest of Corton’s book. (Catherine Peters Literary Review)

Christine Corton’s excellent book explores three questions: how people accounted for London fog, what they did about it, and how it became such an enormous, apparently inexhaustible cultural resource and metaphor...Corton has assembled an astonishing display of fog fiction...Corton has written a thoughtful, vivid, very memorable book. (Neal Ascherson London Review of Books)

Ambitious...The book is substantial, well illustrated and beautifully written, with approachable scholarship...[An] illuminating book. (Philippa Stockley Country Life)

[A] thorough and enjoyable book, not only for its historical account of what London fog was and when it began but for the rich seam of literature, spleen and death that they caused. (Philippa Stockley Evening Standard)

This is an unexpectedly riveting book, scholarly, thorough yet eminently readable. (Londonist)

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