Monday, 30 March 2009

Travelogue: Weather or Not

Before I first went in 1971 to work for a year in Canada, I thought that there could be nowhere they would talk more about the weather than where I lived, in Britain. I was wrong. In Canada they talk about the weather all the time. But they do it in a different way. They grumble about the snow or slush, or about the humidity and heat. But if a winter day is less cold than the one before, people express appreciation. When the temperature is 21 degrees and the sun shines from a blue sky, people speak to strangers in the shops: "Isn't it lovely?"

In Canada, the weather is a natural phenomenon. Changes occur according to laws of physics, so winds blow from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. Air masses over North America, each cold or warm according to its origin in the Arctic or the Carribbean, move in understandable ways. And, because this is physics, scientific instruments are important. We hear much about readings of the thermometer and we are informed of predictions about its readings tomorrow and for the rest of the week.

Now I am a Canadian, living for a few months in Britain again, I have had a realization: here the weather is not so much physical as personal. In a sample of four days early in March, listening just before the eight o'clock news to the weather forecasts on BBC Radio, I heard that despite a bright start, clouds, winds, and wet weather were "threatening to arrive by lunch time in the South East." I was told that "snowfall and icy roads will bother people in the North." A day later I heard: "the wet weather has already shown its hand in Scotland," and the day following that there were "showers waiting in the wings." Instead of Canadian storms and air masses, one can hear of the weather being "miserable," of "gales lashing the East Coast," or of "yet another depression making its way in from the West."

Do these differences tell us anything about national character? Here is a summary of how things stand on each side of the Atlantic, which was told to me as a joke, but perhaps it's only disguised as a joke. "The difference between North Americans and the British is that North Americans think that life is serious but there is hope, whereas for the British life is hopeless ... but it's not serious."

In Canada, with weather as a natural phenomenon, there is hope. If winter has been long, spring will come. If it has rained all day today, it may be dry tomorrow. For the British, with the weather being personal, there is little point in speculating about how long a spell of gloomy drizzle will last. What I do, therefore, is to defy the weather. I refuse to carry an umbrella. I go out without a raincoat. That'll show it that I will not be browbeaten or coerced.


Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

Perhaps one of the most lyrical testaments to this phenomenon of British weathertalk may be found in song (Anglican chant, in fact) by the Master Singers here:

And I cannot resist including a link to Michael Bates' blog page discussing this song (along with a discussion of the British weatherman Michael Fish, showing what Bates calls 'the evolution of [Fish's] facial hair over the decades'):

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Valentine. I had completely forgotten the Master Singers' rendition of the British weather forecast, and it is lovely to hear it again. To confide: I used to be an avid listener to the British Shipping Forecasts, with their procession around the British Isles from Viking (an area between the Shetlands and Norway) all the way in a clockwise direction via the English Channel round to Fair Isle. Not only the wind strengths and directions, but the wave heights, whether or not it will rain, and the visibility, so that one can imagine the maritime scene as one looks out from one's boat in each of these places in succession, and also knowing how much to worry. And the adverbs announcing gales are also very good: "Imminent" means in less than six hours; "Soon" means in six to twelve hours, and "Later" means in more than twelve hours. Wonderful. (PS. And I well remember Michael Fish, too.)

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