Dog and Duck, by Arthur Machen

Where are the Fogs of Yesteryears?

This is a degenerate age. All our comforts have either gone or are fast going. I have said so again and again. Nobody heeds me, or if I am heeded I am told to think of the telephone, the aeroplane, and tubular boilers. But what idle trifling is this? Whoever heard of a jolly party drinking punch as they sat about the sparkling, dancing telephone? Is there any true history of a party, weather-bound in an aeroplane, getting down at a cloud-tavern and telling stories to each other till they had compiled a Household Words or All the Tear Round Christmas Number, only leaving the introduction, or framework, to be written by Mr. Dickens? Has a tubular boiler ever aided in the production of what John Browdie called something ‘warm and varry coomfortable’ to be taken after supper? Of course not; so what is the use of urging these idle conventions against my contention of the age’s degeneracy?

All our comforts, I say, are passing from us. For here am I, writing in September and looking forward to October. Once on a time there would have been something to look forward to. For, with decent luck, and allowing for the eccentricities of our climate, the Londoner of twenty-five years ago had every reason to expect in October that rare treat, the first fog of the season. I must allow that the October fog was rarely, if ever, a perfect specimen of its kind. It was tender, it was, if you like, immature. It had not the richness of the right November growth. I do not think that I have ever heard of a man going past his own doorstep in a fog of October. The Great Fog Legend of the omnibus which somehow wandered into Clare Market — where is that market now? — was seen to vanish under an archway and was never seen more, belongs to November and Lord Mayor’s Day. I admit, then, readily, that the amateur of fogs did not expect the great growths in October; but still there was a peculiar relish in the misty gifts of the month. A little thin, perhaps, in substance, a little lacking in the true sulphurous bouquet of later fogs; comparable, if you will, to the earliest duckling, to the August pear, but still, how relishable in their young and tender bloom! Wise men have held that a green goose eaten at Petertide has a delicacy of flavour that is wanting to the fatted bird of Michaelmas; and so there was a fleeting, sylph-like charm about the firstling fogs of October. The night before, perhaps, it had been warm and stuffy, and you began by casting off the second blanket on your bed. But somewhere in the small, mysterious hours, a chill came into the air and you half awoke, shivering slightly, and drew that rejected blanket back into its place and nestled gratefully under its genial warmth, and so fell asleep again and into happy dreams. And when the morning summons came, the light filtered dim and uncertain through the window, and, looking out, you saw not a street, but a white and fleecy cloud, through which rose the fantastic pinnacles of a fairy castle — otherwise, the chimney-pots of the houses over the way. And the noises of awakening London and the rattle of the rousing streets were hushed and muffled, as the whorls and eddies and wreaths of mist floated past your window. It had frozen in the night; and there was the exquisite result, the first fog of the year. And note the subtle relishes and aromas of this delicacy of the season. It was delightful in itself; for what can there be more delightful or of finer magic than an agency which turns Bloomsbury or Brixton into the appearance of a cloud and the architecture thereof into a thing of unearthly beauty? But beyond the actual enjoyment that your first fog afforded, how rare was it in its prophecy and promise of what was to come! You looked forward to the great fogs of November, December, January; to the masterpieces of foggery, when all London should pass into the mighty cloud, when noon should be as midnight, when the raw cold should pierce to the very bone, when an errand to the shop round the corner should be as desperate and doubtful as an errand to the Pole, almost an occasion for doorstep farewells; when huge blocks of ice should grind together in the invisible Thames, when the curtain of thick Egyptian darkness, if it were lifted for a moment, should show vast caverns and antres of tawny, fiery light, as it were the glow of a dying furnace. Such were the happy anticipations of that October morning of the past.

But, as I said once or twice before, our comforts and our simple pleasures are taken from us one by one. There are no real fogs in London now; the dimness of October gives no promise of November darkness. The last real fog was ‘presented’ on or about December 23, 1904. It was not a fog of the first class, for it was pure white and rigorists might maintain that it was merely a thick river mist. But the hansom cabmen were leading their horses, lamps went before the crawling omnibuses, and some guests, bidden to a wedding feast, went past one of the biggest London hotels without seeing it. Call it a mist if you will; but when shall we have such a mist again? And, just as I was going to write — for the third or fourth time — that life and London have few comforts left in them, it suddenly strikes me that there may be people who will declare that the London fogs of olden time were not comforts at all, but gross discomforts and miseries; that, in short, we are all the better and more comfortable without them. Well, I love a good paradox, but this is a little too much, even for me. The proposition that would deny the curious pleasures of a London fog is not a paradox; it is not even an oxymoron; it is a piece of rank absurdity. Surely this is obvious. I remember once talking to a great Arctic explorer. It was a day of piercing cold — what we in London call piercing cold — and there was a glorious and tremendous fire on the hearth. Before this fire the great man stood displayed, as I think the heralds say, in his enjoyment of the light, of the glow, of the crackling coals, and the genial heat. His face beamed like the blaze behind it, brightened like the light of the flames that danced on the dull walls. ‘You know,’ said he, ‘that nobody who has not been up to his waist in the freezing slush of the Arctic can enjoy a fire like this.’ Of course not; I saw his point at once. The argument surely needs not to be laboured; it is clear enough that the comforts of life cannot be enjoyed without the apposition of their contraries. You do not hear of the people of Aden or Bagdad or Bassorah — I prefer the old spelling — gathering about a glowing, roaring fire, drinking hot punch, and thanking Heaven for these delights. And since man is evidently meant to sit at flaming hearths and to drink hot punch, it is clear that if circumstances forbid his enjoyment of these pursuits he is so far a maimed and imperfect creature, deprived of the comforts in which he was intended to take his pleasure. Should we not then all become Arctic explorers?

That, no doubt, were the right and manly course; but there are difficulties in the way, and one can conceive objections being raised to the population of London spending the season round the North and South Poles. It would interfere with the films and with many social fixtures. In the old days there was a happy middle course. We had the fogs of which I have been speaking; with what a relish we drew back the curtains and saw the air grow dark without as the fire blazed bright within. The bitterer the chill of the air, the more grateful the warmth; the deeper the gloom without, the happier the hearts within. Decidedly, a London fog was one of the choicest of comforts.

But now, as Mr. Micawber said, when he was released from prison, everything is gone from us.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39