Within the last three days, we have had warm golden sunshine, gales that have redistributed around the village anything not actually nailed down, bitter blasts and wallops of rain. Hello, autumn. Whether it’s turning the lights on at midday or forging across the fell at an unfeasible angle, it’s clear that the weather affects more than just what we wear. One of the delicious things about these islands is that we have Proper Weather. The British are famous for talking about it: come and live here and so will you, because it surprises, delights, frustrates and awes twelve times a day. No surprise, then, that books written here are imbued with a sense of the elements.
This week’s title comes from Rosamond Lehmann. The Weather in the Streets follows on from Invitation to the Waltz (and I do urge you, if you haven’t read Lehmann, to start now). A perceptive study of an affair, with some claim to make Graham Greene seem cheery and shallow, the title implies that when we say weather, we are not thinking sunshine and little fluffy clouds. Thinking of which, I did have a copy of Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide, but it just confirmed that I don’t have that sort of brain and I left it – well, under a little cloud of its own. More up my street was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (no, not that one), which hops about from narrative to narrative in a way that echoes If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller and is only not as good because nothing could be (we’ll talk about Favourite Books of All Time one day: and while we’re about it we’re still on a promise to talk about books in translation – unless of course you are equipped to read Italo Calvino in the original, in which case I am, frankly, jealous. I suppose you read Umberto Eco too: lucky, lucky you).
For sticky, un-English weather, Nostromo will have you sweltering: in fact ‘swelter’ is one of Joseph Conrad’s default settings: Heart of Darkness, anyone? But then, he’s good at all shapes and sizes of weather: if you haven’t, go and be engulfed in the mist and fog of The Secret Agent. Best of all, perhaps, on the weather on someone else’s streets, is the incomparably wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring. The cold of the Russian winter follows the heartbeat of the story and gives pathetic fallacy a good name after all. From the sublime to the – well, the more straightforward – we might have a peek at Ice Station Zebra: does anyone read Alistair MacLean these days? Goodness, there’s a lot of plot, mostly uncluttered by any of that tiresome character development or subtlety stuff that so clutters up other writers’ work, but you can’t deny that MacLean could make you feel the cold.
Back home, if we’re putting together a small shelf of books that catch the British weather – and, now I think about it, there would be worse ‘welcome’ presents for someone new to these shores – we will have to include Arthur Ransome: Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post cover the coldest of Lake District winter and the parching that an English summer can deliver. And then there’s Christopher Robin in his gumboots and Pooh afloat on The Floating Bear while Piglet sends messages in a bottle and hopes for rescue. For the grown-ups among us, let’s have the pleasures of JL Carr’s A Month in the Country, not least for its dry certainty that if summer comes, winter must be just round the corner: one in the eye for Shelley.
But of course it’s the poets who really get to grips with the weather. Poetry and weather have much in common, after all, being flickering, allusive and elusive, a sudden flash and then whisking on to the next thing. Above all, they both have the power to lift our hearts and to wring them. So let’s have that fanfare for the makers that Louis MacNeice proclaimed. And – oh, splendid! – here is my first opportunity to fulfil an earlier promise and talk a little about Edward Thomas.
If we were to be silly enough to be making lists of top ten this and top forty that, and presumptuous enough to try for a list of top poets, Edward Thomas would be there. You know the story, I expect: the journalist author of non-fiction books who insisted on volunteering in 1915 and began, under those intolerable and unknowable pressures, to write some of the sparest, bleakest and most beautiful poetry, not only of the First World War but of anywhere or any time. And of course you’ve guessed the ending: sniper’s bullet at Arras in April 1917. Eleanor Farjeon, a friend, wrote the most heart-breaking poem, ‘Easter Monday’, on hearing the news of his death. Thomas could make you feel the rain that beat upon him, hour by relentless hour, but he was such a poet of the countryside that you can also feel the warm breeze at Adlestrop and smell the beguiling earth being turned in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’. More envy on my part, I’m afraid, because if you happen not to have got round to reading much Edward Thomas yet, and now you potter off to do so, you will be steeping yourself in quiet pleasure. I, on the other hand, will be out in the rain, carrying buckets of gravel to make a path. Oh well. As Louis MacNeice says, ‘Let us make. And set the weather fair.’