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When the arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes declared that being English was to have ‘won first prize in the lottery of life’, he evidently wasn’t thinking about the weather. Rhodes, after all, suffered the eminently dreary climate worse than most of us; doctors actually reckoned that the English air was killing him, and the whole reason he spent so much of his life in southern Africa was because he simply couldn’t cope with the combination of pollution and ceaseless rain that was the British weather’s hallmark. Weather affects us all, and even if it’s not hurting us as directly as it did Rhodes, then it’s affecting us in other ways – like deciding what food we can grow, or how wet you’ll get walking up the Spine . So it comes as no surprise that we talk about it so bloody much.
Making small talk about the weather was probably considered insufferably banal by the people who built Stonehenge, but idle chit-chat about the temperature has now transcended the realms of cliché and become something else entirely. It’s nothing short of an obsession, particularly in a place like Lancaster, where going a day without mentioning that massive grey blanket that’s been flung over the sky is like going a day without breathing.
So anyway, I got to thinking (it was raining outside – thinking is a very good indoor activity) – can the weather be said in any way to have had an impact on British identity? After all, collective identities are the result of shared experiences, and if there’s one experience that no one from Britain has escaped it’s that of being thoroughly soaked. Religion, warfare and language are some of the usual suspects when it comes to defining national identity, but as a nation we’ve never had an particularly homogenous religious makeup, and warfare has only really proved that ‘British’ does not equal ‘French’. And the language only serves to highlight the divisions internal to Britain – it is the English language, after all, so where does that leave Scotland and Wales? Is it possible to speak of ‘Britishness’ at all? Maybe the weather is the only thing truly uniting us at all…
It sounds strange, but why not? Weather has been shaping identities for thousands of years. For example, the gods of ancient civilizations in Mespotamia and the Indus Valley took on the characteristics of the local climate. The gods of the Indus Valley, where weather was extremely predictable and as such allowed the development of complex farming and sewage systems, were totally chilled, whereas the Mesopotamian deities were mad, sociopathic bastards; the kind of gods who would, according to Gilgamesh, drown you in your sleep for snoring too loudly – very much in line with the unpredictable flooding patterns of the Mesopotamian rivers. It’s why priests were more highly valued in Mesopotamia than they were in the Indus Valley, because it was more important to communicate with these horrible gods. Weather, quite clearly, shapes culture.
So how has weather shaped our culture? The sheer extent to which weather is ingrained in the national consciousness is clear from how often it pops up in art and literature, not to mention everyday conversation. Jonathan Swift’s famous poem ‘Description of a City Shower’ certainly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to describing the effects of a heavy rainfall on London – ‘drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud/dead cats, and turnip-tops, come tumbling down the flood’, and since then everyone from Wordsworth to Woolf has dabbled in metaphorical explorations of the weather. And scientists have been trying to control the weather for as long as ‘science’ as we know it has existed, with the advances made by the British scientists of the London and Edinburgh (England and Scotland, working together!) scientific societies being immediately turned towards a project of weather ‘rationalisation’, a project that you could argue continues to this day. We confront the weather with every aspect of our culture, and it’s this that has made it such an important overarching factor in the creation of a British identity.
Ultimately it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, whilst the British weather may be grimmer than a week old sausage roll, it has left an indelible mark on our culture. Perhaps the key factor is that it is so predictably dreary, and whilst we like to talk about it and pretend it’s the most extraordinary weather in the world, it’s actually incredibly moderate, and it’s this lack of extremity in our climate that seems to correspond to our relative moderateness as a nation. The Americans can keep their bloody hurricanes, thank you very much, and they can keep their horribly partisan politics too. And although I’m happy to watch Russian films and read Russian books, I’d rather not be around in the middle of a Muscovite winter or a bloody revolution. Sure, there’s the odd turbulent patch in politics and weather every now and again – our ancestors may have killed Charles I, but they got another one in to replace him after a few years – but everything quickly returns to a moderate status quo. After all, as Joseph Addison said, ‘A cloudy day, or a little sunshine, have as great an influence on many constitutions as the most real blessings or misfortunes’.