Monday, February 3, 2014


Fog returned to London on Friday. It was pressing its nose to the window when I woke in the morning. Cycling to work, along the Thames towpath from Richmond Bridge to Hammersmith Bridge, it cut my visibility to ten metres or less. Thick, damp, enfolding, it left my glasses streaming with moisture, and riding through it felt like continually pushing aside curtains. It seemed to rise off the river and seize the land. Traffic noises continued, but cars were invisible; the built structures of the city, from twenty first century office buildings to thousand year old churches, melted into its undifferentiating anonymity.

Dickens’s Bleak House famously opens with a crushing fog, standing for the obfuscation and corruption that has so many citizens in its grip. (‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.’)

But Friday morning seemed to go even further back into history. There was an almost primeval feel to the morning. Bumping along the rugged path, dodging the hanging branches, climbing over fallen trees still not removed since the October storms, I imagined London as it was discovered by the Romans: a tiny settlement carved out by the river bank, a cluster of huts, smoke from a few fires rising into the sky, while danger and darkness lurked in the endless forest beyond. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness describes a nightmare journey up the Congo River into disease and mayhem. But it opens in London, with the hero, Kurtz, sitting on a barge at the end of the Thames, imagining the barbarism of the place before the city was built. ‘this also ...’ he says, ’has been one of the dark places of the earth.’

Then, in the afternoon, the weather broke. Torrential rain cleared away the clouds. Cycling home, every corner and crevice of my clothing, every dip and turn of the road, seemed to have turned into water. There was a relentless, inexhaustible quality to the rain; we just stood in its path, and it could sweep us away if it wanted. Mercifully, London has, as yet, escaped the floods afflicting much of the country. But Friday was a day to be humble in the face of natural forces oblivious to the cool control of civilisation.

No comments:

Post a Comment