Sunday, 30 October 2016

A clichéd advert, cycling in the mist - and what a foggy London reveals about the city's identity

When La Défense, Paris’ equivalent of London’s Canary Wharf, launched a campaign to woo financial services firms from London earlier this month, they used a slogan to make long-term London residents sigh. “Tired of the fog?” it asked. “Try the frogs!” It was an irritating illustration of how comprehensively people’s ideas of London continue to be shaped by Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. Especially since the advent of clean air legislation, it’s really not a typical London experience to find a man in a deerstalker emerge into view from only a few feet away, by the light of a conveniently-placed gaslamp.

Foggy London might be as much of a cliché as 
parliament's clock tower. But, as this picture
taken in this week's misty weather shows,
both still exist. 
Yet clichés survive when there’s a little bit of truth in them. The last few days in London have been a powerful reminder for me, after four years in New York’s very different climate, about the distinctiveness of London’s weather. Day after day has dawned with anything ranging from a slight mist to a definite fog. As I’ve cycled to work or to meetings, the air’s felt an odd mixture of warm from the enveloping blanket of mist and cold from the pervasive dampness. Each day has felt slightly different, in a way that’s obvious only to someone travelling about by bike. The experience has stood in sharp contrast to the switchback ride between hot high summer and chilly late fall that my friends still in New York seem to have been experiencing.

The relative mildness of London’s climate fits with a general atmosphere that’s more subdued than in some other metropolises. More intense, denser, in-your-face New York bakes its residents - and especially cyclists - in summer, only to freeze them in winter. Even its fog is more intense. While the city’s less prone to the generalised, damp mist that’s settled over London the last few days, such dense, impenetrable fog sometimes settles over the East River that I sometimes rode to work over the Manhattan Bridge unable to see the water below.

Even its fog is more intense: cyclists head into dense,
East River fog on the Manhattan Bridge bike lane.

My feelings about the weather have made me realise how puzzlingly rural much of London continues to feel. Generation after generation has sought to erect a very English calm facade for a metropolis of nearly 9m people. I’m always a little surprised here when I encounter the same dense crowds of people I’d expect to see at every corner in Manhattan. In Manhattan, by contrast, if workmen were digging a hole and I saw soil underneath, I always felt a little incredulous. The city felt like a mass made solely of concrete and steel that should properly be bolted straight into the bedrock.

The issue has serious implications. In dense New York, far more people live within what should, theoretically, be easy cycling distance of their places of work and education. London’s lower density makes many trips longer and the rationale for getting about by motor vehicle stronger.
The Wimbledon Common windmill: a bucolic scene
a short bike ride from a town centre wrecked by excess traffic

But it’s also striking how London’s current dependence on cars is strangling much of what’s worth preserving. London is formed of a collection of villages that happened to be swallowed by a city. Yet town centres, such as Wimbledon’s, that could be the hearts of communities are instead noisy, polluted and divided rather than held together by roads that should be their main public spaces.

My main insight from the last few days, nevertheless, is simply that fog simply sits well on London, like a comfortable sweater on a middle-aged man. It is almost by definition a form of mild, still, temperate weather. In the streets around where I live in genteel Brixton Hill, that’s of a piece with the rows upon rows of Victorian houses. Instead of being built to impress with their opulence, these represent an ideal of restraint, moderation and good taste. The fog heightens that sense still further because it obscures a skyline cluttered with the towers that are increasingly making the City and the banks of the Thames resemble Dubai.
A City of London back alley in last week's mist:
an oasis thanks to two millennia of haphazard

The effect is thanks partly to fog’s muting effect on the city’s sounds. It may be partly because it so disrupts flights into Heathrow Airport but there has been an eerie calm around my area today thanks to the fog. It’s a very different feeling from our Brooklyn apartment, where we were treated nearly 24 hours a day to a cacophony of emergency vehicles, squealing subway trains and building work. The effect has been all the more striking because I can, if I want, ride down urban streets that feel, in the fog’s limited visibility, as deserted as a country lane. London’s haphazard growth has left it with a wealth of such meandering back streets. The metronomic grid of a more planned metropolis tends to distribute cars more evenly.

I find my horizons closing in metaphorically as well as literally. A foggy day prods one to feel one’s way gently to the local shops, rather than to venture farther afield. Where one’s local town centre is feels mostly like a better-defined question in London than in many other cities. When an improvised bomb exploded at W23rd Street & 6th Avenue in Manhattan in September, for example, there was considerable confusion about how to describe the area (Chelsea? Flatiron?). In London, where some streets were laid out as long ago as the Roman occupation, the delineations mostly seem clearer.

Fog-induced myopia could on such a day trick one into sentimentality about London’s clear, organic links with its past. As I rode my bike back from church in this morning’s fog, I even passed an older spinster lady I know heading by bike towards a later service. She was a living embodiment of one of George Orwell’s archetypal pictures of England - “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning”.

An unfinished part of the east-west cycle superhighway
in Hyde Park: vested interest at work
Yet one of the most striking factors behind the city’s current atmosphere is the prevalence of vested interests among those who control its territory. I was able to cycle across Clapham Common, for example, because the ancient right of Clapham’s people to graze their livestock on a patch of land by the village. Such commons are dotted all across London, often taking up several square miles of empty space. The influence of royalty is still more pervasive. St James’ Park, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park and others occupy vast swathes of Central London thanks to their ownership by the crown. The City of London Corporation, the unelected government of the square mile where the financial industry is concentrated, also owns some big tracts of land, including Hampstead Heath.

These big, conservative landowners are often fixated on their narrow ideas of how their open spaces should be used and hard to pressure to change. Foot-dragging by Royal Parks currently appears to be holding up further development at the west end of London’s east-west cycle superhighway, yet the body’s very unaccountability makes it impossible to force it to obey the will of the people who ultimately fund it.
London's new towers might be as unloveable as Dubai's,
but a denser, more urban London is probably necessary.

The generally suburban feeling in even large parts of Central London, meanwhile, represents a tendency that’s no less insidious. The UK has for centuries nurtured a cultural bias towards the idea that the countryside is more wholesome and honest than the city. Much of London was built with houses surrounded by gardens big enough to persuade their inhabitants that they were not really in an urban setting. Its housing shortages, congestion and car dependency could all be more easily resolved if the city had embraced the need for density far earlier, as constrained New York has all along been forced to do. While London’s distinctive atmosphere will suffer if more high-rise housing is built, the underground, surface trains, buses and cycling will all gain.

Yet it’s easy on a foggy morning to let those big worries go, at least for a while. Instead, this morning I slipped out of the house with my son and headed off along the deserted, early morning streets towards church. The dampness in the air hung so heavy that we felt big droplets kissing our cheeks as our breath filled the air in front of us. Only the leaves stood out, as if they’d painted themselves red and gold expressly to stand out against the fuzzy-white background.
Fog on Clapham Common: scene for an Orwellian idyll.

The mystery only increased as we rode out onto the common. Trees looked like grease stains on a bag from a bakery, the mist rolling more densely round the bases of their trunks than round their branches. Other cyclists and runners emerged from the mist then faded back into it.

The most remarkable point, however, was that this scene was unfolding not in some old, idealised landscape painting but a mere five miles from central London. I was, once again, reminded of the remarkable privileges I can enjoy by simply riding a bicycle to get around this big, infuriating but ultimately endlessly beguiling city.


  1. Trees looked like grease stains on a bag from a bakery,

    Wow! What a striking simile :-)

    1. Thank you. It seemed apposite. Those stains leave a very distinctive outline.

    2. Are we talking a Gregg's Sausage and Bean Melt or a Montparnasse Cafe croissant? Angry Young Twerps or Toulouse Lautrec? For me an Ivor Dewdney's would do it. Just don't mention Ginster's.

    3. Alan,

      Thank you for the comment. I guess I had in mind something from the Duane Park Patisserie, where the Invisible Visible Boy and I used to cycle on Christmas Eve to get chocolate eclairs for Christmas. But I guess grease is grease, no matter how classily produced.

      All the best,



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