Telling stories for the Earth

Posted on December 24, 2015

The climate march in London on 29 November, coinciding with the opening of the Paris climate talks, attracted over 50,000 people, a record for such an event and it was by turns colourful, joyful, passionate and serious. The weather played the ‘bad cop’ though, showery rain, strong winds and thick cloud making the day extremely gloomy. Weather is a subject that the British never cease to discuss. On this occasion there was a certain amount of black humour of the ‘well winds like this will seem like a calm day in 2040’ variety.
While Paris was dealing with the politics and science around climate, in London there was playfulness and a lot to do with story telling, undoubtedly the way into developing a more emotionally literate approach to what we are and what we will experience, as the climate changes. To help us with this understanding and to give our stories historical narrative and perspective, academic and author Alexandra Harris has produced a journey through the weather worlds of English culture and history. Entitled ‘Weatherland: writers and artists under English skies’ (Thames & Hudson 2015) it is a brilliant and comprehensive analysis of our relationship to weather. Harris is not a ‘nature writer’ like Robert Macfarlane or Richard Mabey; her book is a literary and cultural history and a hugely ambitious one. It is the story of the stories people have told each other about the weather across the Millennia from the Anglo-Saxon scribes of the 8th century through Chaucer, Milton and Wordsworth, to Virginia Woolf and Zadie Smith.
Harris approaches the subject from a range of perspectives, and one of them is the story of our changing relationship with weather as written into the varying forms of shelter that we have built. In Anglo Saxon, a window had been an ’eagduru’ an ‘eye door’ for looking through. The Norse word ‘vindauga’ or ‘wind eye’ became the more common name, signifying what came in rather than seeing out. Windows let in the wind. They were small and at best covered with vellum. Medieval houses often turned inwards to a courtyard. It wasn’t until the 1580’s that the great ‘prodigy houses’ such as Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire invoked the heat of the sun and revised ideas about the relationship between human beings and the natural world. They turned everything outwards confronting the visitor not with strong defences, but with equally formidable displays of confidence.
We find this confidence in the buildings of our cities today. Glassy office blocks are descendants of those Tudor halls, and like them it is usually easier to look out from them than look in. The transparency they seek to express is skin deep, and equally telling the activities conducted within are completely independent of the environment outside. Their architecture, think of the Shard, attempts to make them part of the atmosphere, reflecting the clouds around them. As Harris puts it, ‘This self-effacement is combined with the gesture of unroofed ambition by which the building claims the endlessness of the sky itself.’ Harris brings us down to earth too, reminding us of the centrality of the ‘London fog’ in literature, especially in Victorian times. The great London smog of December 1952 wouldn’t have suited the architect of the Shard or other similar buildings at all; so thick it was that a performance of ‘La Traviata’ at Sadler’s Wells was stopped because no one could see the stage.
This is a book which doesn’t shirk the implications of a changing climate for the stories we tell each other about the weather. Harris is both brutal and celebratory, declaring, ‘Unless decisive action is taken very soon, the next generation will see the last of the weather we know. We will have written the ending to the history of life in a temperate climate…..In the years to come…. our experience will be determined by memory and association by the things we have read or looked at, by the places we have been to or imagined.’ But she is with those demonstrators on the streets of London in spirit too as they respond to ‘the great storehouse we each carry in our mind….. the treasuries are piled high with names we have found for the hail, the wind and the mist, the traditions of the seasons, the myths, the measurements, the diary entries, the carvings, paintings, Frost Fairs and riddles. In the sadness there is room for celebration.’ Is this period of global crisis really the time to read Parson Woodforde’s mundane Norfolk diaries or Ted Hughes’s ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’? I think so.


This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Town & Country Planning