Here’s another of my monthly pieces which I write for the Swedish Goteborgs-Posten. From May.
You will have heard that the English do nothing, almost nothing, but talk about the weather. I apologise for having kept you waiting so long. Actually, as I remember my visits to Sweden, there was considerable discussion about the weather there, in Goteborgs, Stockholm, and up in Kiruna, it was a constant topic of conversation. But weather in Sweden is more interesting than it is in England. Generally the more north or south you are of England (I’m excluding Scotland, at least) the more interesting the weather becomes. I think of England as Weather Boredom Central. It isn’t usually very anything, but it’s often several things at once: raining, damp, grey, cold, quite windy. Nothing really exciting. Drab for the most part. Still we go on about it. Wet, today, isn’t it? A bit chilly. Oh I can’t stand the cold. When will the sun shine? And when the sun does shine and it actually gets hot: hot enough for you? Meaning if only it was cooler, danker, darker and a bit more rainy.
The greatest story describing the human race goes like this: a ten year old girl had never spoken, not once, since she was born. Her parents took her to all the best medical specialists and psychoanalysts, but no one could come up with a reason for her silence. One day, the family were sitting down to supper. ‘The soup’s cold,’ the girl said. Her mother rushed to hug her. ‘Darling, you spoke. After all these years. You can talk! Why haven’t you said anything before?’ The girl looked at her mother, surprised, and replied, ‘Nothing’s been wrong before.’
Weather works the other way. Even if snowfall, ice and sunless winters are normal annual events, as in Sweden, it seems always worth mentioning. And if the weather is moderate but unreliable, which is, I think, the best single word to describe English weather, it also has to be talked about. Weather is never just all right and therefore not a subject for conversation even if it’s unexceptional. But this year in England it all seems a bit much to everyone. It has been relentlessly cold, windy, wet and even snowy until last week, when a bluish sky and a strange warmth arrived briefly (although the ground frost still remained to tear up the hearts of those who rushed out to plant their spring flowers and vegetables). Every other day it reverts to grey and chilly. The complaints have been loud and pitiful. Spring has just refused to come and people I spoke to or engaged with over Twitter have howled with resentment and a sense that they have been cheated. We don’t expect much, we are all saying to each other and agreeing with each other, we are after all English, but it shouldn’t be snowing in the north of England a week into May.
Yesterday the sun really did shine. The sky only clouded over later in the day. It was warm, I checked, 70 degrees. I flung open doors and windows, drifted light cotton clothing over my head to dress and stood by the little pond in the garden watching the tadpoles, only a few and very small, on account of the prolonged winter, racing around in circles, not just to escape the jaws of the newt that patrols the bottom of the pond, but also I would like to think for the sheer pleasure of sunlight hitting their watery lives. Spring has arrived, or at least I hope it has.
What I really don’t like about our weather is its unreliability, not just on a daily basis, but the way it play fast and loose with our seasons; the one thing we have our full fair share of and can take a pleasure in. It isn’t only a national resentment of the extended awful weather stealing our seasons, there’s a personal angle to it too.
These three years or so, I’ve taken a particular interest in a weeping birch tree that grows in the next garden, which I see in its entirety from my study window at the top of the house. I’ve come really to dread the days of late autumn when its leaves finally drop. It’s a very handsome tree and has heavy hanging branches in the winter. But it has become my hourglass, my lifetimer, this tree, as I feel myself becoming older and old, not just arithmetically as I always have, but much more directly. Time passing cannot be ignored any more. But each spring I still look forward to a wonderful moment when the birch tree very delicately greens all over, one day the leaf buds have opened and the branches have disappeared behind an hallucinating shimmer of a bright new green. It only takes a few days and the leaves thicken and darken to become their summer selves, not to be sneered at, a pleasure gently swinging in the breeze, or springing back after a collared dove has flown off from a branch it sat on. I’ve got no complaints about the summer birch. But the few days of the new spring birch are special days in the year, like the old fashioned idea of enjoying the short season of delicious fruit and vegetables, which in my lifetime has mostly been extended to all year round by air-freight.
I once read in a novel by the marvellous writer Stanley Middleton (I hope he’s translated into Swedish) his description of an elderly man whose battery clock on his kitchen wall has stopped. He goes out to buy a new battery and returns home, but it is a while before he replaces the old battery with the new one he has bought. He knows, although it is never exactly stated, that this new battery is likely to outlast him, as the old one outlasted his wife. Middleton is a novelist of the quotidian, tactful and delicate. In a more raucous moment, he tells someone young, ‘I’m so old, I never buy unripe bananas’.
My birch tree ticks away at me, as the battery in the clock does for Middleton’s protagonist. Until recently, it never occurred to me to wonder how many more new greenings I’d see. It should have done, of course, the trees have been ticking since I was born. My impatience this spring with the lateness of the tree has been exacerbated by this feeling, as well as being plain fed up with the cold and grey outside. And I missed the first day or two. I looked away, or forgot to pay attention, lulled by the endless winter. As children, the bad weather stopped us going out to play. The sun meant staying out in the street, for a seemingly endless time, playing games and feeling joyous. I worry now, although I’m not so very old, about dying in the winter time, when it’s raining outside. I worry about not seeing the tree come back again and feeling the warmth when I open the study door to get a better view.