Friday, January 13, 2012

Some Strange Conflagration

Still from "The Eligible Bachelor" an episode of the Granada TV series Sherlock Holmes

I lived in London for almost eight years from 1980 to 1987 and had many memorable experiences, but I was about 20 years too late to experience a classic pea-souper fog. By my day, the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 had cleared away the miasma of soot particulates and sulphur dioxide that used to envelope the city.
Those fogs – known as London Particulars – were lethal, especially to the elderly and people with respiratory conditions. The Great Smog of December 1952 is estimated to have killed as many as 12,000 people in just five days. Nevertheless, I would have liked just once to have been able to experience moving through a city swathed in that surreal, muffled darkness.
Robert Louis Stevenson includes a memorable description of a London fog in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde:
“A great chocolate pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually changing and routing these embattled vapors; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr. Utterson beheld a marvelous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the black end of evening; and there would be a glow of a rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths... The fog still slept on the wing above the drowned city, where the lamps glimmered like carbuncles; and through the muffle and smother of these fallen clouds, the procession of the town’s life was still rolling in through the great arteries with a sound as of a mighty wind.”
Fogs were very frequent in the early 1800s when Alexander Salmon was growing up over his father’s greengrocer shop on Piccadilly. They were often so thick that the horses pulling omnibuses and coaches had to be led by men carrying torches in order to warn of their approach. A particularly dense one occurred on December 5th 1837, and perhaps the 17-year-old Alexander was a witness to the incident described in The Times of London the following day.  
“Not only was the darkness so great [in the morning] that the shops were all lighted up, but also every object in the streets, however near, was totally obscured from the view of the persons walking along. In Piccadilly the darkness was very great, and the confusion caused by the vehicles running against each other beyond description. About 9 o’clock the Hastings branch coach, which had just left the Old White Horse Cellar, while endeavouring to turn into St. James’s-street, ran into the shop window of Mr Hoby, the celebrated bootmaker, at the western corner, which it demolished with a fearful crash, breaking upwards of 40 squares of glass.”
Can any greater contrast to this dark, Satanic metropolis be imagined than the palms, cloudless skies, and black sand beaches of Tahiti?

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