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
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Summer finally shows up, London blazes under cloudless skies, and so what better time to evoke the enveloping embrace of that classic 'pea souper', the London fog?
My foggy thinking has been prompted by the recent world première at the Barbican of the restored print of Alfred Hitchcock's 1926 film The Lodger, with a newly commissioned score by producer, songwriter, and composer Nitin Sawhney. The screening and commission is part of the British Film Institute's contribution to London Festival 2012 (the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad), celebrating the work of Hitchcock through a complete retrospective, and the restoration of his extant silent films.
The Lodger was adapted from the bestselling 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes (older sister of Hilaire Belloc): one of many turn of the century Jack the Ripper narratives, in which a couple suspects their new lodger may be a serial killer. As the killer continues to target lone women across the capital, his identity hidden by the swirling fog that masks its streets, the mysterious lodger is in turn pursued by a baying crowd convinced of his guilt. They almost succeed in lynching him.
Sawhney's score, however, is more lush than such a synopsis might suggest. A richly romantic motif pads agreeably through the new composition - a nod to subsequent Hitchcock scores (especially those of Bernard Herrmann) as much as to the melodramatic possibilities that Sawhney found within The Lodger itself. As Sawhney explained after the première, a screening of The Lodger in 2012 can hardly ignore the iconic scores for Hitch's subsequent work; and so the sheen of the remastered images is often matched by the soundtrack.
While the melodrama is hard to reject entirely, for me the defining image of the film occurs early on, when the lodger - Ivor Novello: those cheekbones, that scarf... - materialises uneasily from the swirling fog in front of his new lodgings. The visual and metaphorical pull of the fog is central to The Lodger. Hitch appended a sub-title 'A Tale of the London Fog' for good reason, and the intense fog not only shelters the killer, but conceals characters from each other: the empty, acrid unknowability of human relationships that cloaks the narrative, and gives the film an unsettling, ambivalent tone. It is a theme to which Hitch would return (the wrong man: hunted and haunted) as much as he returned to the melodramatic caper, and I wondered if the new score perhaps understates this uncertain void at the heart of the film.
Indeed, it seems that Hitch had been attracted to Belloc Lowndes's novel because of its essential ambiguity, especially regarding the identity of the serial killer. Although the film's producers insisted on a supposedly happy ending, in which it is revealed that the lodger is innocent of the killings, Hitch had hoped to film the novel's more ambiguous conclusion. In the novel, the lodger simply vanishes one night, leaving the identity of the killer unresolved; though with his guilt - and indeed his dangerous insanity - strongly suggested.
The obscurity of the killer's identity and motives is reinforced by the 'fog-laden, drizzling atmosphere' of the novel, the noxious effects of which would have been only too familiar to the film's original audience in 1926. In preparing the British Library's own Festival 2012 contribution, the Writing Britain exhibition www.bl.uk/writingbritain , I spent some time looking at the ways that so many other London writers have drawn on the images of a fog-bound capital, most famously in the bravura opening to Bleak House, in which Dickens conjures a primitive, swampy London in which the sight of a 'Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn' would hardly seem out of place:
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.
Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping
into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and
hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales
of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient
Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog
in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper,
down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of
his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck.
In many classic nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels, fog is not only a marker of atmosphere, but an active agent in (or obstacle to) the narrative quest. Few Sherlock Holmes stories fail to evoke a 'dense, drizzly fog', and in The Sign of the Four, Arthur Conan Doyle employs the adjective 'befogged' as a synonym for 'mystified' ('I was limp and weary, befogged in mind and fatigued in body'). London fog is often an impediment to characters' attempts to shine light on mysterious crimes, and in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, the descending fog limits the vision of the Assistant Commissioner until - both literally and metaphorically - 'all was black'. Similarly, the 'great chocolate-covered pall' that covers Soho 'like a district of some city in a nightmare' in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde obstructs the police's investigation into the murders, obscuring Hyde's true identity.
In a Punch cartoon from 1886, 'The Winter Art Exhibition', critics in a foggy gallery can barely make out the art on the walls in front of them ("This looks an important work but I can't see it"), while for Oscar Wilde, the fog itself was a literary/artistic invention:
At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.
For Wilde, writing in 1891, fogs were already being 'carried to excess', and he advised 'Art to turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere'. However commonplace a motif it was by the time of The Lodger, the fog remains as crucial as the eponymous lodger to Hitch's film adaptation of Lowndes's story; and its swirling mysteries hopefully still as resonant to twenty-first century Clean Air Act Londoners as it was to our fellow citizens of an earlier, foggier capital.
Follow Jamie Andrews on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BLEnglish_Drama
Writing Britain is part of the London Festival 2012, and runs until 25 September at the British Library www.bl.uk/writingbritain