Friday, July 27, 2007

Weathering The Weather

from Jacqueline

I come from a country where someone once said, “We don’t have climate here in Britain – we have weather.” Personally, I think weather is what makes for a close-knit community. When I was a kid just about every conversation between two adults began with a comment on the weather.

“Mornin’, George.”
“Morning, Fred.”
“Nice one, innit?”
“Long as it lasts. Got to get the beans in before it comes down again.”
“Farmers need the rain though, don’t they?”

A conversation like that could go on for hours, and anyone who came along would join in and add their two penn'orth of weathered wisdom.

Without weather, writers wouldn’t have a key compoment with which to communicate time and place – a low rain-filled cloud over ink-black hills, or mist rising from just-washed Parisian sidewalks on a summer’s morning. So, being British and a writer, I rather like weather. I pay attention to it, watch for its nuances, after all, rain is pretty boring when it’s just rain, and snow can become slush when you least expect it.

Speaking of rain - I’m off to the land of the Great Deluge next week. This time last year, I arrived in sweltering London, hovering above the 100 degree mark with a humidity you could cut with a knife. But this year Britain has floods of almost Katrina-like proportions, complete with a government who received early warnings of the inclement interlude from meteorologists some months ago.

And while Britain is flooded – the worst rain in over 200 years – southern Europe is ablaze, with searing temperatures throughout Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Slovakia, Romania, Kosovo and other countries in that broad region. This photo shows firefighters just outside Athens – there are blazes igniting all across Europe.

The scientists are coming down on the side of global warning as an explanation, with movement of the jet-stream in a southerly direction being blamed for the British floods. As a member of parliament said today, if we don’t all do something now, then the British Isles will be under water in 500 years. I’m concerned about the 500 years, but am just heartsick when I think of all those people and animals losing their habitats to rain and fire.

So, I’m packing my bag with rain in mind, though I would really love a miracle over the next week or so. My wonderful God-daughter is getting married on August 4th, and though she is being her usual down-to-earth pragmatic self about the state of the weather this year (Can’t do much about it, can I, Jack?), I would love to have the powers of a real fairy God-mother, to be able to make the sun break through and shine on her big day. Apart from anything else, I’m traveling 6000 miles to see her walk down the aisle, which I think it a pretty good reason to want the very best day for Charlotte. In the meantime, here’s a photo of the lovely Charlie the last time I saw her – in March, when we went into Bath on a fine spring day to buy her wedding jewellery and stopped for a decidedly unposh lunch. Isn’t she lovely? I’ve seen her in her wedding dress already, and I can tell you now, she looks stunning and I’ll be wearing waterproof mascara on the day.

Going back to the issue of time and place, here’s my question to you this week: Do you have a favorite passage from a work of non-fiction or fiction that uses weather to describe a place in a way that makes you feel as if you were there? There’s one that has remained with me for over three decades. I was reading a collection of Hemingway’s letters and in one – to Max Perkins, probably – he described visiting the Scott-Fitzgeralds on a sticky hot day in Paris. Zelda had laundered handkerchiefs, then set each wet handkerchief against a pane of glass in the window. The handkerchief dried fast as sun beat against the glass, so that when she pulled the cloth away, it was as if the cloth had been starched and pressed and needed only to be folded. When I think of it, little was said about the actual weather, but the descriptions of the fast-drying handkerchiefs said so much about the city in summer. And here's another thing, when I was a kid we were taught that the plural of handkerchief was handkerchieves. Is that just a British thing, or have we moved away from doing more than adding an "s" to make a plural? Same with roof and rooves, hoof and hooves. Just wondered.

And as a disclaimer, because I read this letter so many years ago, I may have mixed up the characters. It might have been Scott-Fitzgerald who was transfixed by the first Mrs.Hemingway’s laundering of handkerchiefs.

So, what passages come back to you when you think of weather? And what about those plurals?


  1. I can't recall any weather passages at the moment but I remember a friend telling me a story many years ago about the heat and humidity she experienced on a trip to Thailand. While there she gave herself a manicure but the nail polish never dried. Now THAT'S humidity.

    It's hooves, but either handkerchieves or handkerchiefs is acceptable with handkerchiefs being listed as first choice in my dictionary.

    Regardless of the weather, the wedding day will be perfect. Bon voyage!

  2. Have a great trip. I like the change of seasons only because it's a novelty to me. I guess all the bloggers here except Cornelia skip winter. How cold does it get up her way?


  3. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, Patty - I know the wedding will be perfect, mainly because the two people getting married are so lovely, so kind, and deeply in love with each other. But I had to laugh about the manicure in Thailand - oh, Lord, I do hate humidity.

    And I love the seasons, Jim, but some of this weather is really unseasonal. The meteorologists predict that British summers will either be rain-soaked or as dry as the desert now, with nothing temperate in between. I think our seasons are changing along with the weather, which is a bit worrying when you're used to a certain rhythm in your year. And in the meantime, if we don't get one heck of a rain-soaked winter in California this year and early next year, we are going to be seriously up the dry creek bed without a water bottle - it is dry, dry, dry out here.

  4. I love the opening line of "Gorky Park" by Martin Cruz Smith.

    "All nights should be so dark, all winters so warm, all headlights so dazzling."

    Yikes, this violates Elmore Leonard's number one rule in his "Ten Rules of Writing Fiction."

    I think Leonard would give Smith a pass because the weather is used thematically to contrast with the scene itself (a homicide scene) and to contrast with the corruption underlying the heart of the book.

    Then there's Hemingway. I won't even bother to identify the source of this quote because every Naked Author reader will recognize it immediately.

    "The sun rose thinly from the sea and the old man could see the other boats, low on the water and well in toward the shore, spread out across the current. Then the sun was brighter and the glare came on the water, and then as it rose clear, the flat sea sent it back at his eyes so that it hurt sharply and he rowed without looking into it."

  5. from Jacqueline

    Thank you for the Hemingway quote. You know, I think Hemingway has written some of the best passages bringing together the natural environment (and weather!) with the humans who inhabit it - and the paragraph you've quoted is one of my favorites.

  6. Would this count?
    While walking in Manhattan, Woody Allen tries to impress a date in "Play It Again, Sam"

    "I love the rain. It washes memories off the sidewalk of life."

  7. from Jacqueline

    Oh, good Lord, that is fantastic, Paul - how many more of those have you got tucked away? I'm going to write that one down and keep it to quote one day.

  8. For all our readers: Naked Authors gets a very nice plug today from the mystery maven Oline Cogdill of the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel on her new blog:

  9. For some reason your handkercheives on the windows reminded me of this, from MFK Fisher's THE ART OF EATING:

    That February in Strasbourg was too cold fur us. Out on the Boulevard de l'Orangerie, in a cramped dirty apartmen across from the sad zoo half full of animals and birds frozen too stiff even to makes mells, we grew quite morbid.

    Finally we counted all our money, decided we could not possibly afford to move, and next day went bag and baggage to the most expensive pension in the city.

    It was wonderful--big room, windows, clean white billows of curtain, central heating. We basked like lizards. Finally Al went back to work, but I could not bear to walk into the bitter blowing streets from our warm room.

    It was then that I discovered how to eat little dried sections of tangerine. My pleasure in them is subtle and voluptuous and quite inexplicable. I can only write how they are prepared.

    In the morning, in the soft sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them, as you watch soldiers pour past and past the corner and over the canal towards the watched Rhine. Separate ach plump little pregnant crescent. If you find the Kiss, the secret section, save it for Al....

    Take yesterday's paper (when we were in Strasbourg the L'Ami du Peuple was best. because when it got hot the ink stayed on it) and spread it over the top of the radiator....

    After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them. Al comes home, you go to a long non dinner in the brown dining-room, afterwards maybe you have a little nip of quetsch from the bottle on the armoire. Finally he goes. You are sorry, but---

    ON the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.

    All afternoon you can sit, then, looking down on the corner. Afternoon papers are delivered to the kiosk. Children come home from school just as three lovely whores mince smartly into the pension's chic tearoom. A basketful of Dutch tulips stations itself by the tram-stop, ready to tempt tired clerks at six o'clock. Finally the soldiers stump back from the Rhine. It is dark.

    The sections of the tangerine are gone. I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.

  10. from Jacqueline

    Oh, Cornelia, I will never eat a tangerine again without thinking of this excerpt - it is absolutely exquisite. Thank you, thank you. And here's what it made me think of (apologies in advance): I keep my horse on a ranch amid orange groves, and each day I prepare a fresh orange for Sara, the horse. Most horses love oranges, but if you give them a whole one, they bite into it and just suck out the juice. So, I cut Sara's orange into six segments, skin, pith and all, and feed them to her one by one. Not anywhere near as romantic or dreamy as your tangerines, but it's what came to me - and there is nothing so lovely as riding a horse through an orange grove in spring, with that heady decadent fragrance of blossom in the air and the sun still youthful, without that blistering maturity of summer.

    And Paul, I'm checking out that blog now - that's great news!

  11. Riding through the scent of orange blossoms sounds like heaven, Our J. I still remember a warm winter's night in Palm Beach when I was 15--full moon and the smell of orange and grapefruit blossoms so heavy and sweet on a warm breeze.

  12. "Scratch my back with a lightning bolt,
    Thunder rolls like a bass drum note,
    The sound of the weather is Heaven's ragtime band" Jimmy Buffett.

    When I hear these lyrics I am back on a beach in Florida in the summer gazing at an approaching big white thunderhead. Its so big you have to look straight up to see the top of it and its so white and round and beautiful you can't imagine that in a couple of minutes you'll be drenched by a deluge, buffetted by downdrafts and convinced that you're living your last moments even though you've crawled under the picnic table in the cabana with your head between your knees to hide from the white hot detonations exploding within yards of your hiding place every few seconds.

    After its over and you can see the next cabana again you realize that there were two young boys hiding there just like you were who now run away giggling and you understand why everyone else had got in their cars and fled when the first crackle had rolled across the skies maybe half an hour before.

  13. Adam Strait's post makes me miss Florida. And yes, Jimmy Buffet makes great use of the weather.

    This is from "Trying to Reason with the Hurricane Season."

    Well, the wind is blowin' harder now
    Fifty knots or there abouts,
    There's white caps on the ocean.
    And I'm watching for water spouts
    It's time to close the shutters
    It's time to go inside.
    In a week I'll be in gay Paris;
    That's a mighty long airplane ride.

  14. For the Parrotheads, one more brief Buffet:

    From "Mornday Morning," the signature line:

    "I spent four lonely days in a brown L.A. haze and I just want you back by my side."

  15. Thanks to Adam and Paul. Your respective lines from Jimmy Buffet remind me of the Caribbean - and as it's close to Florida, it isn't surprising. And that brown L.A. haze on a hot day is one reason I try not to linger down there.