Snow’s up

Rackham-WindWillows-Snow

(Arthur Rackham, illustration to The Wind in the Willows)

‘What’s up, Ratty?’ asked the Mole.
Snow is up,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘or rather, down. It’s snowing hard.’

Looking out of the upstairs window of the flat in which we’re staying for the weekend, I remark that it seems to be snowing.
‘It just looks like it’, the Librarian calls from the bedroom, ‘It’s the light.’
I peer through the glass again, ‘No. I think it’s definitely snowing. Have a look for yourself.’
She looks. ‘It’s snowing!’
I say, ‘Yes, that’s what—’
‘It’s snowing!’

And it is. In Bristol, we see snow almost as rarely as we see responsible national governance. Here in Walthamstow, apparently, the weather has no such inhibitions.

‘We have to walk to the station’, I point out to the snow-loving Librarian. ‘In these shoes.’ My shoes are perfectly comfortable but, in the event of slippery surfaces, they laugh weakly and surrender me to the elements without a qualm.
The Librarian regards me patiently before explaining: ‘It’s snowing! It’s snowing!’

It is.

To the north, even in parts of Gloucestershire, snow has been falling meaningfully. Gloucestershire often catches what Bristol doesn’t (though Bristol has, in the past, been classified as part of Gloucestershire, then Avon, and now as both city and county):

The day fails, sky drags with unfallen snow;
the hours, already, of the plough and of the crow.
All we can do here is say nothing and move on.[1]

Great for kids, less good for travellers, for livestock, for the transport business. Very good for photographers, artists, poets.

It is this we learn after so many failures,
The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow,
That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty,
That no river is a river which does not flow.[2]

As a symbol, snows knocks a lot of other natural phenomena into a cocked hat. Hugh Kenner mentions the lines in the Iliad which rhyme snow with ‘hurtling missiles’ and notes that passage’s ‘rhyme’ with the snowfall at the end of James Joyce’s story, ‘The Dead’.[3] Alice Oswald, in her brilliant ‘excavation’ of the Iliad, has this:

Like snow falling like snow
When the living winds shake the clouds into pieces
Like flutters of silence hurrying down
To put a stop to the earth at her leafwork[4]

Snowprints

But then, remembering reports from friends in Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania over the years, our snow tends to be comparatively puny, apart from in the Scottish highlands and a handful of other—mainly upland—areas. As Alexandra Harris mentions, Wyndham Lewis, in the first Blast manifesto, cursed ‘the flabby sky that can manufacture no snow, but / can only drop the sea on us in a drizzle like a poem by Mr Robert Bridges’. The Bridges poem, ‘London Snow’, with its large flakes ‘Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying, / Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town’, just wouldn’t have cut the explosive mustard for The Enemy.[5]

In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot famously wrote that

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Interestingly, in a 1936 letter to Ottoline Morrell, he commented that ‘the winter is to me a warm and anaesthetic season’.[6]

En route to Walthamstow Central, the snow is still falling, so fresh and relatively easy to walk on, even for those with slyly treacherous shoes. I trudge steadily, maintaining momentum. The Librarian is somewhere behind me, taking photographs. Of snow, yes. Photographs of snow.

References

[1] Josephine Balmer, ‘Malvern Road Station, Cheltenham’, in The Word for Sorrow (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2009), 8.

[2] Louis MacNeice, ‘Autumn Journal’, in Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 102.

[3] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 92, citing Philip Damon’s 1961 book, Modes of Analogy in Ancient and Mediaeval Verse.

[4] Alice Oswald, Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad (London: Faber, 2011), 18.

[5] Wyndham Lewis, editor, Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex (London: John Lane, 1914), 12; Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 331.

[6] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 55, 604.

 

A feather in the wind

Sea-1

Between Eype and West Bay, a fierce wind rocks us on the cliff path. A couple of days later, at lunch in the Watch House Café, the sound is almost deafening at times, sails flapping on high and rolling seas. On the slope above the shore, you can lean steeply and confidently into the wind. The sea is foaming, furious, tiny tumbleweeds of spume blown in cartwheels across the sand, thinning to threads of washing suds, smears along the beach.

In a high wind, I often feel as I do when watching a raging sea: a sense of awe at such naked strength and power but also extreme pleasure in the knowledge that they are, precisely, irresistible. No matter how misdirected, demented and destructive human behaviour becomes, the wind will blow, the sea will rise and fall. In such a wind, resistant, your feet solidly planted, you feel your body’s strength but also sense its limits.

Back-to-West-Bay

In An Affair of the Heart, Dilys Powell, the celebrated film critic who also wrote several fine books about Greece, remembered a people called the Perachorans. She was married to the archaeologist Humfry Payne, who, in 1929, was appointed director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens. A year later, he initiated an excavation at Perachora, a settlement on the Gulf of Corinth, and Powell spent a good deal of time in and around the area. She wrote, ‘They grow old, they die, but they are the same. And I reflected with astonishment – for in imagination it is always oneself who is stable in an inconstant world – that I was the feather in the wind.’[1]

It’s a resonant image. Sixty years on, the world is a little more inconstant, a little less stable. Just a little. Still, it’s hardly surprising that the wind has always been a favourite literary symbol, from Homer through to the Romantic poets and beyond, seemingly apposite in a staggering variety of contexts, wind as god, wind as breath, wind as inspiration or omen or threat or simply impersonal force.

‘My thoughts were a great excitement’, W. B. Yeats remembered, ‘but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon into a shed in a high wind.’[2] Indeed, we’ve all experienced that, no doubt. Or something like it. Or vaguely resembling it. Although lately it seems that, even when just a little excited, people tend to take to social media. Sometimes, they bring along thoughts with that excitement.

Karen_Blixen_and_Thomas_Dinesen_1920s

(Karen Blixen with her brother Thomas on the family farm in Kenya in the 1920s)

Karen Blixen, writing of her farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills, sited at an altitude of over six thousand feet that ‘the wind in the highlands blows steadily from the north-north-east. It is the same wind that down the coasts of Africa and Arabia, they name the Monsoon, the East Wind, which was King Solomon’s favourite horse.’[3] And it may well have been: he seems to have had 4000 to choose from, or 40000, depending on the version you settle on. A great many horses, in either case; and a great many wives and concubines too.

Having made our effortful way back from the beach—at an angle of something less than ninety degrees—we sit listening to the howling in the chimney, raising our voices a little. That in turn recalls (of course) the narrator of Ford’s The Good Soldier: ‘And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.’[4] And it occurs to me to wonder, given the level of noise in this wind, just how much the narrator (‘talking in a low voice’) wanted to be heard; or rather, how much it mattered. Without getting too detailed, if his listener is the now-mad Nancy Rufford it probably doesn’t matter much at all: the murmur of a voice amidst the chorus of the wind will do.

‘Wind in the Work of Ford Madox Ford’. That could be worked up into something, surely. The sentence from The Good Soldier has its traceable ancestry, primarily Ford’s own poem, ‘On Heaven’, which includes the line ‘Through the roar of the great black winds, through the sound of the sea!’[5] And more than twenty years later, at the close of Provence: From Minstrels to the Machine, another strong wind—the mistral this time—plays a central role in the drama, unless it’s a comedy:

Provence.dj

‘And leaning back on the wind as if on an up-ended couch I clutched my béret and roared with laughter. . . .We were just under the great wall that keeps out the intolerably swift Rhone. . . . Our treasurer’s cap was flying in the air. . . . Over, into the Rhone. . . . What glorious fun. . . . The mistral sure is the wine of life. . . . Our treasurer’s wallet was flying from under an armpit beyond reach of a clutching wind . . . . Incredible humour; unparalleled buffoonery of a wind . . . . The air was full of little capricious squares, floating black against the light over the river. . . . Like a swarm of bees: thick. . . . Good fellows, bees. . . .’

A ‘delirious, panicked search’ then begins, for the scattered banknotes (those ‘little capricious squares’), for passports, for citizenship papers. The money that was to finance a year or two of rest has mostly gone. ‘But perhaps the remorseless Destiny of Provence desires thus to afflict the world with my books’, Ford concluded—as if he would ever have willingly stopped writing, mistral or no.[6]

Back in Bristol, it’s oddly calm today. Hardly a flicker in the heaped brown leaves. I type at the top of a page: ‘Calm in the Work of Ford Madox Ford’. Nothing’s come yet.

References

[1] Dilys Powell, An Affair of the Heart (London: Souvenir Press, 1958), 173.

[2] W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 41.

[3] Karen Blixen, Out of Africa (1937; Harmondsworth: Penguin 1987), 14.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 18.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Collected Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1936), 8.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Provence (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938), 367-368.

 

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.