Fogs of Waugh

A new book on the history of London fogs has inspired a reference to Evelyn Waugh’s thoughts on the subject. The book is London Fog: The Biography to be published next month and reviewed in this week’s London Review of Books. (Full access requires a subscription.) Waugh addresses the subject of London fogs in Put Out More Flags. Ambrose Silk muses on their history in a conversation with Geoffrey Bentley, former publisher, lately in the employ of the Ministry of Information (Penguin, pp. 174-75; emphasis in original):

The decline of England, my dear Geoffrey…dates from the day we abandoned coal fuel…We used to live in a fog, the splendid, luminous, tawny fog of our early childhood…We designed a city which was meant to be seen in a fog. We had a foggy habit of life and a rich, obscure, choking literature. The great catch in the throat of English lyric poetry is just fog, my dear, on the vocal chords. And out of fog we could rule the world; we were the Voice of Sinai smiling through the clouds. Primitive peoples always choose a God who speaks from a cloud. Then, my dear Geoffrey,…some busybody invents electricity or oil fuel or whatever it is they use nowadays. The fog lifts, the world sees us as we are, and worse still, we see ourselves as we are. It was a carnival ball, my dear, which when the guests unmasked at midnight, was found to be composed entirely of impostors. Such a rumpus, my dear.

Although Ambrose was speaking in 1940-41, the pea soup fogs continued after the war (including a particularly deadly example in 1952 in which thousands died). They finally lifted after legislation in the early 1960s imposed additional restrictions that included banning any further use of coal for heating in central London. Since this more or less coincided with the last flicker of the British Empire, Ambrose seems to have got it right 20 years earlier.

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