Tuesday, 28 December 2010


The twelve inches of snow that has covered the English Midlands for the past ten days has melted overnight and as a result we are now enveloped in a blanket of dense fog.  Admittedly, UK fog, in this age of smokeless fuels, is nothing like the fogs of my youth, when cities could be smothered in dirty, lung-chocking smog for days on end.  Nevertheless, having cursed the snow vociferously for over a week, I would now give a great deal to have it back and to be rid of the grey nightmare that clings to my clothes and my hair as soon as I step out of my door.

However, if there is an upside to this unwelcome weather, it is that it immediately brings to mind my favourite passage from Dickens, that wonderful second paragraph from one of his greatest novels, Bleak House.

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. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

As a linguist I know that this is a masterful piece of writing, its form and substance working together to draw his audience into not only the subject of his novel but also the emotional heart of what he was concerned with.  Did you realise, for example, that the syntax of this passage is such that there is not a single completed sentence?  Oh there are fullstops all right.  But, there is not a single finite verb.  Every clause is subordinate, waiting on something else for its completion, just like the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  Like the fog it describes and the justice it represents, the paragraph lacks a sense of limit and boundary.

But, I didn't first come to this passage as a linguist, nor was it analysis that made me love it as I do.  No, it was simply as a reader that I reacted to the beauty of the words and the exactitude with which Dickens has caught that cold and chill and damp that I still experience on a day like today and stored this paragraph away in my memory to make the fogs of the twenty-first century just that bit more bearable. 

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