When you move to a new country (as I did a few years ago, moving from New Mexico to Scotland) one of the first things you have to learn is the small talk that makes the world turn. The place I’m from has sunshine three hundred days a year, so our weather talk tends to focus on the remarkable days when something different happens. When I moved to Edinburgh I learned quickly that the weather is a vital, important, daily, hourly, topic of conversation in the U.K.
Alexandra Harris’s extraordinary book Weatherland is a remarkable look at how important the weather is to the British identity. Part historical document, part scientific record, part literary analysis. It’s a linguistic delve into the importance of the topic to the writers and artists who lived under the mercurial British skies, and to their audiences. As she says, “Weather is one of the most powerful threads holding us together: it is what we share with everyone else who is in it or under it.”
Harris harkens back as far as England itself, to the Anglo-Saxon period, moving forward through history to reinterpret Chaucer’s famous prologue, and examine Shakespeare’s obsession with an England dominated by storms both literal and dramatic. She looks at creators and critics like Milton, Keats, Turner, the Bronte sisters, and Ruskin, to name a few. By delving into art and literature through time she provides a window into the weather real people were experiencing and their relationship to it. Her prose is clear and crackles with energy – she is excited by these ideas and makes the reader excited, too.
By the end of the book Harris has brought us to the present da- to the U.K. floods of recent years and a contemplation of what changes will occur in the English character as the weather we experience changes measurably due to global warming, “We have arrived, in the twenty-first century, at a crucial juncture in the story of weather. Unless decisive action is taken very soon, the next generation will see the last of the weather we know…We will have written our own ending to the history of life in a temperate climate.”
This is a book I will refer back to many times. Highly recommended, especially to lovers of literature, art, nature, and the phrase, “lovely day, isn’t it?”
Weatherland by Alexandra Harris was published by Thames & Hudson in 2016.