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H V Morton

Ghosts of the Fog
Read H.V.Morton's biography

St Pauls in the smoke
St Paul's Cathedral seen through the smoggy haze of a 1920s afternoon.

Men are like flat figures cut in black paper. All things become two-dimensional. Carts, motor-cars, omnibuses are shadows that nose their way painfully like blind beasts. The fog has a flavour. Many flavours. At Marble Arch I meet a delicate after-taste like melon; at Ludgate Hill I taste coke.

Everywhere the fog grips the throat and sets the eyes watering. It puts out clammy fingers that touch the ears and give the hands a ghostly grip.

Children alone love it. They press small faces to windowpanes and watch lights like little unripe oranges going by in the murk. A taxicab becomes something ogreish; a steam-lorry is a dragon spitting flame and grunting on its evil way. Men who sell things in the streets become more than ever deliciously horrible. They never arrive normally; they loom; they appear, freezing the blood, howling their wares like the lonely wolf in a picture book.

I go out into the fog and enter an incredible underworld. The fog has turned London into a place of ghosts. At one moment a man with a red nose and a moustache like a small scrubbing-brush appears with the suddenness of an apparition. There must be millions of such men with exactly similar moustaches, but this one is segregated from the herd. He seems unique in his isolation. I am prepared to believe he is the only one of that type in the world. I want to examine him as a learned man examines an insect on a pin. He seems a rare and interesting specimen. I want to cry 'Stop! Let me appreciate you!' But no; in a flash he goes, fades disappears!

There comes a girl, pale and beautifulmuch more beautiful than she would be on a fine day, because the eyes are focussed on her alone. She has the allurement of a dream, or a girl in a poem.

What is this in Oxford Street? Two motor-cars locked together. Fifty grim, muffled ghosts stand round watching and blowing their noses. On any day but a foggy day it would be a mere nothing: an excuse for a policeman to lick his pencil and write in a book. To-day it is a struggle of prehistoric monsters in a death-grip. So must two clumsy, effete beasts of the Ice Age have fought locked in each other's scaly arms.

'Hi, there, put a bit of beef behind it.. . . Come on, mate heave!'

Deep, angry voices come from the grey nothingness. A girl ghost says:

'Oh, isn't it awful? My eyes smart like anything."

Two big yellow eyes bear down on the scene. Men ghosts jump about in the road. They shout, they wave a red light, the monster with the two blazing eyes swerves, there is a vision of a red-faced man in a peaked cap and his gloved hands on a steering wheel:

'Keep your rear lights on, can't you! You ought to be in the cemetery. . . . that's where you ought to be and that's where you'll blinkin' well end!'

He passes on with his message.

* * * * *

In Finsbury Square a crowd of ghosts watch ten devils. Men are putting down asphalt. To-day they are not men: they are fiends pushing flaming cauldrons. The roadway is a mass of tiny, licking, orange-coloured flames. The devils take long rakes, and the little flames leap and flicker and fall over and between the prongs like fluid. Red-hot wheeled trolleys, with a blasting flame beneath them are dragged backwards and forwards over the roadway, heating it, licking at it, and roaring like furnaces.

The wind blows the flames this way and that way, lighting up the faces of the men, glittering on their belt buckles and making their bare arms fire colour.

The ghosts stand with white faces watching. More ghosts come. One little ghost has a peaked cap and an urgent message in a patent leather pouch. He stays a long time.

* * * * *

Near the Bank I come face to face with the greatest optimist of this or any other age. Here is a man entirely obscured by fog standing on the kerb making a tin monkey run up and down a piece of twine. Think of it! If you are sad or broke or things are going wrong, think of this man selling tin monkeys in a thick fog.

'How many have you sold?' I ask him. 'Fower,' he says.

Four tin monkeys sold in a thick fog. Marvellous! Incredible!

from The Heart of London 1925

Also by H.V.Morton CENOTAPH, AMONG THE KINGS and BEHIND THE WINDOW

 

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Sunday 25 December 2005