CAMBRIDGE LETTER Weather is usually a routine part of conversations in Britain. Not so this year.
Talking about the weather is a peculiarly British phenomenon. Rather like routine inquiries about someone’s health (“How are you today?”), comments about the weather do not usually require, or even expect, a serious answer. (To return to the health analogy, anyone responding to the “how are you” question with a list of symptoms will certainly be looked at askance.)
So it is in general with weather comments. To remark that it is quite fine, or sunny, or warm, or wet is normal and acceptable. To reply to such a remark with a detailed analysis of temperature, wind strength, or rainfall level is likely to be a conversation stopper — and will mark you out as at best eccentric, at worst obsessive.
The reason why we British have the habit of making remarks about the weather, without really thinking much about them, or expecting them to lead to an interesting conversation, can, I suppose, be attributed to the fact that weather in this country does not follow precise patterns. Summers are quite often cold. Autumns and winters can, by contrast, be warm. We all know what the weather in any season ought to be like, but we all know, equally, that it may well not be. We can, therefore, justify our comments about the weather — comments which emerge almost subconsciously — by the fact that there is quite probably something mildly interesting about it. Mildly is the operative word; it is most unlikely to offer anything like a compelling topic of conversation.
Different this year
This year, as it happens, it could justifiably be argued that the weather we have experienced during the past six months has been sufficiently unusual, sufficiently unpredictable, to make it genuinely interesting.
In the early part of the year, Britain suffered a serious drought. Reservoirs were low, and hosepipe bans were imposed in many parts of the country.
A few weeks later, rain began to fall, in places quite heavily, but we were assured (accurately, I am sure) that there had not been enough rain to cure the drought.
Then, in the past few weeks, there was a dramatic change. We had unusually heavy rainfall, and before long the hosepipe bans were lifted (although so heavy was the rainfall in many places that nobody actually needed to use their hoses.) The unseasonal drought was followed by similarly unseasonal rain — which, of course, affected many aspects of life, including the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. At a personal level, we were taking a holiday two weeks ago, and had to change some of our plans, particularly our plans to walk in the Northumbrian countryside, because it was too wet to walk in comfort.
During the past few days, many parts of the country have been subjected to very heavy rain, and severe flooding, which was particularly severe in parts of northern England, notably in the towns of Hebden Bridge and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. People were forced to leave their homes as more than a month’s worth of rain fell in 24 hours. There were problems also in Scotland, Wales and the west of England. Train services were temporarily suspended. A number of events had to be cancelled.
There is something ironic in the fact that all this has happened in a year when we have been affected by serious drought. It may be remarked, flippantly, that it has been the wettest drought in living memory. Without being flippant I feel that this year’s weather so far has been an indication — by no means the first — of the significant reality of climate change.
Whatever one thinks about that, one thing that is certain is that this year, our national propensity to talk about the weather has much more than usual to commend it. Discussing the exceptional rainfall and its dramatic effects makes much more sense than the customary weather platitudes. There is actually something serious to talk about. Even attempting a detailed analysis of temperature, wind strength, and rainfall would not at the moment be an automatic conversation stopper. Rather, it would be a wholly understandable reaction to a genuinely newsworthy and important meteorological manifestation. The weather, unusually, presents us with something worthy of serious discussion.
Most of us, I suspect, are likely to feel that however having something to do with weather that is genuinely worth discussing has something to commend it, we shall not be sorry when things return to normal. We shall be very ready to welcome a return to the platitudes that we are used to.