Storm warnings

Rousseau, Theodore, 1812-1867; Landscape with a Stormy Sky

(Theodore Rousseau, Landscape with a Stormy Sky: Victoria and Albert Museum)

Walking in the park, the Librarian remarks on how beautiful the light is: lying on the trees, the mosque glimpsed between buildings on the facing hill and the lines of colourful housefronts. The light is, yes, extraordinary—but not least because of the violent mixing of colours on the sky’s palette. Above the trees behind us, there’s a great stretch of glowering darkness, which collides at one point with a patch of pure brilliance, untouched by any shadow or streak of darker colour. Above another clump of trees, a cloud of deep grey seemingly squats among the branches.

As with sky, of course, so with a great deal else. Those with the good fortune to be readers of Louis MacNeice think often of ‘Snow’, which reads in part:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.[1]

‘Incorrigibly plural’, yes. There are simplicities, to be sure, but not always where our contemporary ‘culture warriors’ believe—or pretend to believe—they are. Elsewhere, MacNeice writes:

‘We are not changing ground to escape from facts
But rather to find them. This complex world exacts
Hard work of simplifying; to get its focus
You have to stand outside the crowd and caucus.’[2]

Now we are watching the trees bend; the door propped carefully open when the cat insists on fresh air; one brief and bitter squall of rain earlier; the wind yesterday afternoon and evening irritable, confidently predicted to be furious today. The worst storm in three decades, one forecast reads.

unknown artist; View of the Cobb and the Bay, Lyme Regis, Dorset

(Unknown artist: View of the Cobb and the Bay, Lyme Regis, Dorset: Lyme Regis Museum)

Novelist John Fowles wrote of the famous Cobb at Lyme Regis that it was not only a harbour but ‘a gigantic breakwater protecting the town from the great storms out of the south-west.’[3] That’s the quarter from which this storm is coming, as often before. Francis Kilvert wrote in his diary of a visit to Claremont House: ‘When the S.W. gales blew and rattled the windows Lord Clive used to get up in the night to wedge them tight and guineas being more plentiful with him than anything else he always used them. The housemaids used to transfer these guineas to their own pockets in the morning and prayed with reason for a S.W. storm.’[4]

Little wonder and plenty of reason, with an annual salary of around £20.

 Before the great storm of October 1987—an extreme depression in the Bay of Biscay moving north-eastwards—there were tough UK winters in 1962-63 and another drifting out of my lifetime, 1946-47. A few years before that, Rosamond Lehmann wrote in her story, ‘When the Waters Came’: ‘The wind was a steel attack; sharp knobs of ice came whirling off the elms and struck her in the face’, while the news at the post office was that: ‘The peacock at the farm had been brought in sheathed totally in ice: that was the most impressive item.’[5] This was, presumably, the wave of freezing weather in January 1940. The River Thames froze then for the first time since 1888 and there was a terrific ice storm across the country late in the month.

Hondius, Abraham, c.1625-1691; The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London

(Abraham Hondius, The Frozen Thames, Looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge, London: Museum of London)

In a diary entry of Sunday 8 December 1872, Kilvert wrote: ‘The morning had been lovely, but during our singing practice after evening church at about half past four began the Great Storm of 1872.’[6] In the eighteenth century, Gilbert White noted the  punishing winter of 1767-8: some days, he remarked, were more severe than any since 1739-40. But top billing was given to the ‘amazing tempest’, the great storm of November 1703.[7]

‘From the middle of the month there were gales’, Alexandra Harris writes, ‘and then on the evening of the 26th the wind grew unnerving. By midnight a hurricane was blasting across England, and there was no let-up until dawn. Fatalities were eventually calculated at about eight thousand. The greatest terror of the night was out in the Channel, where thirteen Royal Navy ships and their crews were drowned. On land barely a building survived intact. It remains the most violent storm recorded in England.’[8]

Up until ten this morning, the wind was fitful but not too severe. Predictably, some people were already dismissing the forecasts—‘Nothing’s happening!’—but footage of seafronts in south Wales and south-west England bore them out and I don’t plan to be walking under any trees today. I like this calm space, within easy reach of the kettle and the cooker. Eye of the storm. In Patrick White’s great novel of that name, Elizabeth Hunter’s daughter Dorothy, on the way to Australia, sits next to a Dutchman who tells her about a storm he experienced, being at sea when a typhoon struck. ‘For several hours we were thrown and battered – till suddenly calm fell – the calmest calm I have ever experienced at sea. God had willed us to enter the eye – you know about it? the still centre of the storm – where we lay at rest – surrounded by hundreds of seabirds, also resting on the water.’[9]

White-Eye-Storm

In a letter to Ingmar Björkstén (21 January 1973), who had asked about which of his novels felt closest to him, White confessed his difficulty. ‘I tend to feel close to The Aunt’s Story because in the beginning it was either ignored, or, in Australia, considered a freak. My feeling has been much as I imagine parents would feel towards a child who is not quite normal: they have to protect it. I also feel very close to The Solid Mandala because it conveys a certain nightmarish quality of life which I have experienced, though the incidents in the novel are hardly parallel to anything in my actual life. But at the moment I am obsessed by my latest book The Eye of the Storm, because in it I think I have come closer to giving the final answer.’[10]

David Marr, White’s biographer, remarked that: ‘The Eye of the Storm has the fundamental plot of all the books White wrote after falling in the storm at Castle Hill: the erratic, often unconscious search for God.’[11]

In his story centred on the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, killed at Neuville-Saint-Vaast in 1915, Guy Davenport wrote: ‘But our knowledge, which must come from contemplation and careful inspection, has collided with a storm, a vortex of stupidity and idiocy.’[12]

At least we don’t have to contend with anything like that, do we? To be sure, the storm is really getting into its stride now but it’s just the weather we have to worry about, no?

Notes

[1] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 24.

[2] Louis MacNeice, ‘Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard’, Letters from Iceland, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (London: Faber & Faber, 1937), 31.

[3] John Fowles, A Short History of Lyme Regis (Stanbridge: The Dovecote Press, 2004), 10.

[4] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969), I, 297.

[5] Rosamond Lehmann, The Gypsy’s Baby and Other Stories (1946; London: Virago Press, 1982), 94.

[6] Kilvert’s Diary, II, 288-289.

[7] Gilbert White, The Illustrated History of Selborne (London: Macmillan, 1984), 46, 19-20.

[8] Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English  Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 170.

[9] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 69.

[10] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 410.

[11] David Marr, Letters, 354; on the fall, see  Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 281ff.

[12] Guy Davenport, ‘The Bowmen of Shu’, in Twelve Stories (Washington: Counterpoint, 1997), 140.

One thought on “Storm warnings”

  1. The Martha Gellhorn epigraph is especially, painfully, apposite today (2/24/22). War, the storm cloud of the 20th century, returning. As if we haven’t had enough madness. Well, the new Last Post has arrived, renewing one’s appetite! Congratulations! And since I last wrote you, I sent Seamus my review of Morey’s book.

    Like

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