Weather or not

Window

Rain is skittering on the windows above my head. Rain again, the reign of rain. Tip tap. Or is it dot dash? Is it, perhaps, messaging? There’s a solid twenty-first-century word. Are you messaging, rain?

It might say: I can keep this up all day. Or even: I can keep this up forever, even after your stupid, aggressive, greedy, self-destructive species has wiped itself off the face of the earth. To which I reply: Too harsh by far. Lots of us are not like that at all. To which the rain says: So how did all you intelligent, peaceful, progressive, constructive people let this happen? To which I reply: I must go shopping now. . .

Yes, August! High summer, as comedians say. Colossal price hikes from us, as travel companies say, if quietly. In continental Europe, the weather is easing for some, though Italy and parts of the Balkans are still in the grip of a heat wave and parts of Greece too would still be uncomfortable for me. My younger daughter writes from Barcelona that it’s been twenty minutes since she had something to drink: she must go in search of fluids. Some British holidaymakers, warned away from swimming pools and beaches in Italy or Southern Spain must be a little confused to find themselves casting longing glances in the direction of home, where our weather forecasters try to vary the menu a little but with limited options. Sunshine and showers. Maybe sunshine between the showers. Showers this morning will give way to heavy rain in places. Rain, rain, rain.

William-Cobbett

August. William Cobbett, travelling early in that month in 1823, through southern English counties, rode into bad weather:

‘But, alas! Saint Swithin had begun his works for the day before I got on top of the hill. Soon after the two turnip-hoers had assured me that there would be no rain, I saw, beginning to poke up over the South Downs (then right before me) several parcels of those white, curled clouds that we call Judges’ Wigs. And they are just like Judges’ wigs. Not the parson-like things which the Judges wear when they have to listen to the dull wrangling and duller jests of the lawyers; but those big wigs which hang down about their shoulders, when they are about to tell you a little of their intentions, and when their very looks say, “Stand clear!” These clouds (if rising from the South West) hold precisely the same language to the great-coatless traveller. Rain is sure to follow them.’[1]

St Swithin’s day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain;
St Swithin’s day, if thou be fair,
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mair.

An idea already current in the fourteenth century, apparently.[2] In a wholly or largely agricultural economy, weather is a crucial matter. We had an industrial revolution; agriculture’s proportionate contribution to the national economy has diminished hugely; but we are still, famously, preoccupied with our weather.

There have been periods in our history when other topics fought for—and, briefly, achieved—ascendancy. But those periods have usually coincided with wars. Mollie Panter-Downs, writing in August 1941, remarked on the weather being ousted as the primary subject of conversation. ‘Everyone talks about food.’[3]

Chateauwood

(Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917: photograph by Frank Hurley, who famously accompanied Mawson and Shackleton on expeditions to the Antarctic but was also official photographer with Australian forces in both World Wars. Australian War Memorial,  collection number E01220.)

War and weather, particularly extreme weather, have been frequently discussed just lately because of the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele (July–November 1917), when relentless and prodigious rainfall, the heaviest for thirty years, turned the battlefield into a lethal quagmire, where men and horses drowned in great pools of foul water.

‘“That agony returns,”’ Edmund Blunden wrote. ‘On July 31 the worst and most hated of the British offensives was begun, against all reason, all around or nearly all around Ypres. Reason had had no luck for weeks before’.[4]

CO_002252.IWM

(Canadian Stretcher Bearers carry wounded through the mud: Imperial War Museum)

There were moments of individual, rainy luck—rain or, rather, its cessation. Ernst Jünger wrote of a shell hitting the collapsing farmhouse which he’d sheltered in earlier that day because it was raining; now, without rain, he has stayed outside: ‘That’s the role of chance in war. More than elsewhere, small causes can have a vast effect.’[5]

Not long after that war, in fact, we find weather, specifically the implausible dream of prolonged, fine English weather advanced as characteristic of utopian politics, when the Dowager Duchess of Denver (not that Denver), mother of Dorothy Sayers’ detective Lord Peter Wimsey, in conversation with Inspector Parker, is admiring the handsomeness of Sir Julian Freke: ‘just exactly like William Morris, with that bush of hair and beard and those exciting eyes looking out of it—so splendid, these dear men always devoted to something or other—not but what I think socialism is a mistake—of course it works with all those nice people, too good and happy in art linen and the weather always perfect—Morris, I mean, you know—but so difficult in real life.’[6]

One of my teachers, a Buddhist, used to assure me that there was no such thing as ‘bad weather’—there was only weather. Yes, we need to be—one can’t, in all conscience, use the word ‘robust’ since it has been so misused and degraded by politicians recently—stalwart, doughty, if not weatherproof. As Doctor Johnson said to Doctor Brocklesby: ‘The weather indeed is not benign; but how low is he sunk whose strength depends upon the weather!’[7]

 

References

[1] William Cobbett, Rural Rides, ed. George Woodcock (1830 edition; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 123.

[2] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 244.

[3] Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes, edited by William Shawn; new preface by David Kynaston (London: Persephone Books, 2014), 194.

[4] Edmund Blunden, Fall In, Ghosts: Selected War Prose, edited with an introduction by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2014), 129.

[5] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 196.

[6] Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body? (1923; London: New English Library, 1968), 93.

[7] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, introduction by Pat Rogers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 1338.

 

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