THE FACT OF THE MATTER
What is it, this obsession of ours with the weather? When it’s hot, it’s ‘very hot, isn’t it?’ And when it floods it’s a great excuse to close schools or hospitals and take a day off work. We’re obsessed with climate, though sadly not with climate change and its potential powers of destruction for future generations.
At the bus stop, in the taxi, in the lift, bumping unexpectedly into people we know in the laneway, the talk is invariably of the weather. Maybe it’s a way of getting over our initial awkwardness at being in proximity with our fellow man while trying to avoid any misconstrued intimacy.
We have a considerable cache of cliches in our conversation confined strictly for weather: It’s a soft day thank God; hmmm that cloud looks ominous; I’d bring the ump’ if I were you, just in case; it’s weather for the ducks; if you sit too long in that sun, you’ll get cancer; when I was a kid the summers … and so on.
Speaking of which, I reckon it’s just a trick of the mind, of ageing, that we think the summers of our childhood were sunnier and hotter.
Here, and around the world, the Eighties were unusually warm. Globally, seven of the 10 warmest years since accurate records began about a century ago occurred in the Eighties. And the trend has continued, with 1990 the hottest and 2003 the second on record, then 2006 — or was that 2007? And, floods aside, 2015 is set to join that sunny set.
In the mid-Seventies it was the drought; during the late Eighties it was the greenhouse effect. In the Nineties, some reports suggested we were being poisoned by the poor quality of the air we breathed.
Our obsession is perhaps due, in part, to the fact that we are predominantly an increasingly urban society, and our climate is so relatively temperate that we seem to have no collective feel for the traits of the seasons.
More of us increasingly live in cities than is the norm for many Europeans. Even in comparatively small country towns where local, and therefore seasonal, produce ought to be available, we pick our fruit and vegetables off the supermarket shelves … always available, uniform, and imported when out of season.
We now move in an artificial world, from our domestic central heating, which insulates us from the winter chills to our offices, where the air-conditioning tempers the fierce heat of the summer sun.
And so, our obsession continues.
I enjoy weather … well most of it. Hurricanes, floods, dense fog and extreme temperatures don’t have a lot going for them, but I cannot imagine living in a country where the weather is the same all year round.
The truth is we find a consistently harsh climate, either tropical or arctic, strangely unlike us. We’ve always preferred moody clouds and atmosphere to clear skies and sharp horizons. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” the poet asks his dark lady. “Thou art more lovely and more temperate.” Variety, coolness, and doubt are what we crave.
Weather is braided into the national psyche. Those of us who are destined to live on this damp, foggy archipelago are sapped and disorientated by prolonged heat. We are conditioned never to expect a full day’s sunshine, let alone a month or two of scorchers. Our classic excursion begins with grey skies, and brightens at lunchtime, before the heavens open and we traipse home, having had, we tell ourselves, “the best of the day”.
Limited, not great, expectations are what sustain us. Perhaps the threat of climate change, if this is what the current severe floods suggests, is more the threat of extremes than the onset of ecological disaster.
In the end, we need to work with the weather, adapt to the conditions and celebrate that which is good.
Besides, what would happen to the fine art of conversation at the bus stop or in the taxi if it could not celebrate the great tradition of sunshine and showers?