Have you ever had a conversation with neighbours or strangers about the weather? I’m sure you have. We all have. It could be described as a definition of ‘human’, to have a solemn conversation about weather. With no conclusion drawn whatsoever.
To digress a moment. Have you considered what a strange thing man is (that’s mankind ladies, even if they often aren’t)? Man has been defined as possessing a soul and made in god’s image (Genesis), a forked radish (Carlyle), obsessed with sex (Darwin), using symbols (Burke), possessed of a sense of humour (Asimov), prone to self dramatisation (anon) and preoccupied with the weather (me). This explains a lot of human history. (Mind you, all these definitions were made by men).
“Looks like rain”.
“Yes, doesn’t it. Forecast is for sunny tomorrow though”.
“Isn’t it hot?”
“35 degrees out West on the forecast. Hottest winter in 100 years”.
Why do we tell each other the weather forecast we’ve each just seen on TV, or point out that the sun is shining, or that the clouds are looking thunderous? Do we think the other person mightn’t have a TV set, or can’t for some reason look up at the sky?
True, looking up at the sky is not what it used to be: acid rain, greenhouse effect, asteroids and man made debris from outer space, coke bottles thrown by a crazy god. Best not to look. Is that cloud or smog on the horizon? In Tokyo quite recently it was a fashion for pedestrians to wear a surgical mask to filter out exhaust fumes and pollution. Extremists wore gas masks. If you remember the bomb on Hiroshima and the Underground attack you can see where they’re coming from.
Maybe these weather conversations are some kind of social glue. In a world where it gets harder and harder to be PC (i.e. avoid offending others) as more and more minority groups air their grievances we desperately need something innocuous to talk about, something that won’t get somebody’s back up.
As Bob Dylan put it: “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. OK, he wasn’t talking about the weather forecaster on television, but he does give us a clue. Concerned with weather, Bob. ‘Hurricane’, ‘Idiot Wind’, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’, ‘Rainy Day Women’, ‘Buckets of Rain’, ‘Shelter from the Storm’. He’d keep his end of the conversation up on the bus.
What might be the point of such conversations as:
“Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“Hope it keeps up for the week-end”.
It was once social glue. Social glue in the form of an innocuous conversation with virtually no meaning, designed to demonstrate there are at least two reasonable people in the world (even if you’re not entirely sure about the other guy). An earlier generation was taught not to talk about religion, politics or sex, at least to strangers. But the weather was safe. When I walk outside and pass by elderly neighbours, they often pause to smile, and comment on the weather. Not younger folk. Mention it’s a nice day to them and they stare right through you. That’s the serial killer generation for you. Mistrustful.
When I was younger I lived in Kings Cross and dined at a favourite restaurant there. One day I heard on the news a customer had been asked to leave the restaurant, for reasons of weirdness. He took offence, left, but came back shortly with a gun and killed four people. A sign of the times. I often wonder if a short, meaningless chat about the weather might have pacified this disturbed soul.
The funny thing is that talking about weather was once the same as talking about religion. One of the terrifying manifestations of god was the thunder and lightning. Old religions were built around gods of the weather, Zeus with his lightning bolt, Thor with his thunder hammer. Even Yahweh was a weather god before Isaiah transformed him into the one god, and the command “Let there be light” had more to do with lightning bolts (the sun had not yet been created according to one Genesis account). It was simple. Bad weather at one time could destroy your crops, and your little community with it. It was frightening, powerful and mysterious. God was seen as a destructive force from whom mercy was implored. The state of his temper could be gauged by the state of the weather. If the sun shone, and the rains came on time, all was well with the world, and it was worth talking about. Perhaps old habits die hard. Talking about, celebrating, the weather, asking mercy in bad weather, could be a form of ancient prayer. Typical of humans, that, trying to have it both ways now.
What gets strangers chatting is a grizzle. Now the list of subjects we can’t grizzle about is a long one: god, Jews, homosexuals, African-Americans, people with a disability, foreigners, all these are off limits (unless you’re a member) because they’ve been over targeted in the past. Drug addicts are OK, but you proceed with caution. They might pull a gun and shoot you if your grizzle turns out to be with a drug addict. Unstable, you know. Or they may pay you a visit when you’re not at home and take your stuff. As George Carlin says, it’s always the good stuff. Environmentalists are becoming off limits because they look like ordinary people, and you might get into an argument with a fellow grizzler and end up covering politics, religion and, if it gets abusive, sex. Smokers are still in season. You can tell your fellow grizzler is not a smoker; smokers have those tubes of burning weed emitting smoke they drag into their mouth and blow out their nose,and they reportedly pay $20 a day for the privilege. But smokers will soon be classified as drug addicts and become off limits (they are already off limits in restaurants as they were once in railway carriages). For the time being weather seems still safe as a grizzle subject. But it is becoming an environmental subject (I mean, it’s always been one of course, but now a political environmental issue). What you don’t want is to have the subject veer off into discussions of global warming, industrial pollution, environmental taxes, greenhouse effect and whether you use paper bags or plastic ones for groceries. The danger is you could end up talking about politics, religion or sex.
Could it be that religion, politics and sex will become the next grizzle topic, and discussion of these subjects the social glue of the future, as weather is phased out as not PC?
Already politicians rival the weather as a topic among strangers. You have to discretely find out your companions’ political leanings, but usually the politicians in office it is safe to say are corrupt, inefficient, are exploiting the electorate, and are only in it for what they can get. That’s a bit like saying it’s a nice day when the sun is shining. No-one’s going to disagree. It’s been that way for 3000 years, and is as good a definition of ‘civilisation’ as any other. Most Australians would sympathise with WC Fields, who reportedly once said, “Hell, I never vote for any politician. I vote against!”
Sex is now entering the public domain. Declaring your acceptance of homosexuality now is worthwhile, as it shows how liberated and tolerant you are. Mind you, if the person who occupies your parking space turns out to be a homosexual, that might cease to be true. We seem to be entering a phase when sex is becoming detached from gender. Does that mean we’re becoming even more over sexed as a species than ever before, or merely trying to practise birth control while still having sex? There’s still not many people good at leaving before they’ve said goodbye. (And what environmental impact do condoms have?)
Religion is the only topic of the three still off limits, as social glue at any rate. We are uncomfortably aware that a growing group who believe implicitly that god wrote the King James English translation of scripture is ensconced in the United States of America, descendants they think of the lost tribes of Israel; and another growing group in the Middle East believe in every word of the holy Qur’an. Perhaps Qin Shi Huangdi and Li Si had the right idea. While ideas such as “Jesus is king” have priority over “love your enemies” or “those without sin throw the first stone” it is not safe to bring up religion as a topic with that pleasant old fellow on the bus. He might be armed.
At the moment though, weather is still a useful social glue (for those who want to talk to strangers, risky as that is). This is because, here at any rate, weather is just about to happen but never does so. It’s like the London fog, always there, so always good for a comment. Australians live in a country which saddles the tropical and temperate zones, and we have weather to match: drought followed by flood. Not enough rain, then too much. But more and more we have cloud. This may well have inspired an IT person to come up with a name for online data storage. Up above heaven is closed for alterations, and a cloud cover has been pulled over the existing facade. Will it rain? It looks like rain. But it has for the past three weeks. Meanwhile I’m uncomfortably aware of my personal weather problem: umbrellas that slowly disintegrate in the umbrella rack. When it does rain I have to cope with an umbrella with detached or bent ribs, and waterproof cover that flops down and sends a stream of rainwater down the back of my neck. I once had one that exploded and sent ribs out independently. Others have the same problem. I always feel sad when I pass an abandoned umbrella lying on the footpath. Someone has given up.
Weather is an important component of fiction. What would Wuthering Heights be without the weather described in that book?
“There was no moon, and everything beneath lay in misty darkness: not a light gleamed from any house, far or near all had been extinguished long ago: and those at Wuthering Heights were never visible —still she asserted she caught their shining”.
Eat your heart out Edward Bulwer-Lytton! And here is the famous passage from Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford of 1830: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness”. This is true weather talk, with phrases you could remember to tell your neighbour. As is well known Charles Schultz’ great creation Snoopy took the passage as his inspiration when writing his novels. And achieved immortality (though perhaps not because of Bulwer-Lytton). It should not be forgotten that Bulwer-Lytton was a huge bestseller in his day. The Victorians loved his books. Maybe that’s how they did talk about the weather.
“Dark last night, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. It was a dark and stormy night”.
This could have inspired a later immortal, Al Sleet, the hippie-dippie weatherman—”Tonight’s forecast: Dark. Continued dark throughout most of the evening, with some widely scattered light towards morning.”
Of course if we were really talking about weather we’d do it differently. In the film Crocodile Dundee the hero is accosted by some NY toughs with a knife, and is momentarily puzzled as to what the thugs are up to. “Give him your wallet” says his companion, Sue. “Why?” asks Dundee. “He’s got a knife!” says Sue. “That’s not a knife” laughs Dundee, and pulls a crocodile skinner from his belt. “THIS is a knife”.
THIS is a description of weather, from a favourite author of mine.
In an essay called ‘Winter Solstice’ Charmian Clift describes a storm from her childhood, remembered 30 years later. She lived at Kiama, on the South coast of NSW, where cliffs overlooked the sea and creeks ran down to join it.
“…Dramatic winters, with great turbulent aubergine skies rolling and crashing about, and moments of prescience so still you reeled in the darkening silence and held your breath and waited for signs and wonders and portents. Lightning maybe, stabbing and forking and ripping that purple arras, or pall, that so ceremoniously looped itself over our winter world. Thunder, peremptory, barking some challenge to us. To us? God to god, more likely – in immortal combat. We believed in gods then. That much was easy.
“And then the rain. Sheets and gallons and oceans of it scratching the weld over with a million diagonals, or sometimes verticals, sogging up the tussocked paddocks, gurgling down the gutters, springing freshets where the cannas grew by the creek, sounding a din on the tin roof like all the kettle drums that ever summonsed Marlborough, and drawing up and out of the earth such a smell as I have never smelled since – not through all my winters – of the pungency of life. Soil, growing things, paspalum grass, seaweed, creek mud, cow dung, and bruised white flowers.
“When it rained like that we didn’t go to school because school was a mile away over the hills and we’d only get soaked and be sent home anyway…
“…Then we ran. Bare legged and bare headed, hauling on slickers as we went. Down to the wild wet beach and the squealing sand and the enormous sea, dark to purple almost and frilled and frothed with the coldest white, lashing and pounding at the rocks and cliffs but pulled back and out at the creek’s mouth, and stained with the reception of that muddy flood-tide. Rippling now at the beach’s edge, fast and shallow…
“…And sometimes there was hail. The sky was black-green then, a marvellous colour like the beginning and end of things, or what children might imagine the beginning and end of things to be. The sea, black-green too, exploding into millions of little jumping gushers. Silver cake-lozenges, bouncing and scattering and rolling…And the noise on the roofs to wake the dead…And the black world roared and your hair was hung with diamonds.
“Afterwards there was always a rainbow hanging gauzy in a sky the colour of an old green bottle, blown unevenly, with flaws and whorls of thickness and darkness and one cracked patch where the sun was breaking through…”
Bravo, Charmian. A long description, and only one cliche (“to wake the dead”), when, for the rest of us, cliche is of the essence when describing the weather (I just love the “squealing sand”. That’s accurate).
Of course Clift is writing, not talking. The comparison brings out some interesting differences between the two modes.
We talk to reassure, both ourselves and others. We write to impress.
To that end we make do with imprecision in speech, spontaneity, even incoherence, as we supplement what we say with body language and other sensory signals. Effective writing on the other hand succeeds by its precision. If we stop meaning what we say the reader stops reading (unless we’re both fulfilling each others’ fantasies, a significant aim in some writing).
Nobody else usually points this out, but Shakespeare talks effectively about the weather too. Clift quotes him in the above mentioned essay. Her mother, a highly dramatic person whom life left somewhat stranded, is curled up by the fire and reading to the children as the storm wreaks its spectacular force outside.
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers [precursors] to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill [germinate] at once
That make ingrateful man!
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then, let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high-engender’d battles ’gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul.
I am a man more sinned against than sinning”. (King Lear III/2)
A grief so shuddering a storm’s the only metaphor, but a storm described exactly. At least once Shakespeare must have stood outside in a thunderstorm and got drenched.
Wouldn’t that make an effective forecast on television? Now if we could get a Shakespearean actor down on his luck as weatherman (you know what I mean Bob) and in costume, then we could exchange lines from King Lear with our neighbour as we peer doubtfully into the sky.
Could it be we peer into the sky with the preoccupations of Kurtz from Heart of Darkness (“Oh the horror. The horror”). Expecting to see the same vision of mad John, an Apocalypse with angels of doom and god riding the thundercloud in judgment? Maybe all that pollution we shouldn’t have emitted is at last going to come back and bite us? Oh why didn’t I use the recycling bin?
Or are we wondering if we’ve lost our umbrella again, because it’s not in the usual place, and it looks like rain? Where do the damn things go? I once knew a person who got their umbrellas exclusively from the Railways Lost Property office. He said they had millions of them, and he always had a good choice.
Anyway, have a nice day! When you say that, smile. Go on…make my day.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Weather courtesy Him Upstairs. Please inform post author of any violation.