Saturday, November 5, 2011

Good Climates are Worst

Just before Halloween, what was identified as an "unseasonable" snow storm hit the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Watching the BBC's video shot in New Jersey of the heavy snow coming down, a Filipino friend who has never experienced snow in his life asked me if it was cold this time of year in the States. "Yes," I told him. It's mid-autumn." Then I had to explain to him what autumn was, since he had no notion of it.

George Orwell wrote the following essay for the 2 February 1946 edition of the Evening Standard. What he meant by a "bad" climate is one that causes discomfort when exposed to it, in the cold, the rain, or even in a gale. He suggests that the "good" climates - like the one I'm living in - are actually worse than bad because they are so unvarying. The heat is unending, it even rains more than in England, and there are typhoons instead of gales. There are really only two seasons here - the wet and the dry. Some years they are exactly divisible as such, but in others, thanks to the El Niño/La Niña effect, there are long dry spells in the rainy season and plenty of rain in the middle of the dry.

Orwell may have been unfair toward tropical fruits and flowers (rambutans are delicious) and flowers (I see daffodils every day here), but he knew that happiness can only be based on variety, not on sameness; that hot weather is not just the price to be paid for the cold, the two are faces of the same coin.

Bad Climates are Best

The time was when I used to say that what the English climate needed was a minor operation, comparable to the removal of tonsils in a human being.

Just cut out January and February, and we should have nothing to complain about.

Now, however, I feel that I would not remove even those two months, supposing that I had the power.

This is not entirely an academic question, for, if our popular scientific writers are to be believed, we are within sight of being able to control the climate. By the use of atomic energy, it seems, we could melt the polar ice caps, irrigate the Sahara, divert the Gulf Stream, move chains of mountains from one place to another, and, in short, alter the planet out of recognition.

And if the day ever comes when Britain has to decide what kind of climate it is to have (it will be done by plebiscite, I suppose, or on the basis of a Gallup Poll), I hope we opt for what is called a "bad" climate and not what is miscalled a "perfect" one.

The great thing about the English climate is its variation. It is not merely that you never know what the weather is going to do to-morrow, but that each season of the year, and indeed each month, has its own clear-cut personality, like an old friend - or, in the case of two or three months, an old enemy.

In very many parts of the world this is not so. In most Eastern lands there are only three seasons, the hot weather, the cold weather and the rains, and in each of those three periods one day is just like another day.

In very hot climates there is not even anything corresponding to spring or autumn; there are always flowers in bloom, the trees are evergreen, the birds are nesting all the year round. Down near the Equator even the length of the day barely alters, so that you never have the pleasure of a long summer evening or of breakfasting by artificial light.

I am going to try the experiment of running through the months of the year and seeing what associations they automatically call up.

They will not all be pleasant ones, but I think it will be found that they are sharply differentiated from one another. I will start off with March.

March. - Wallflowers (especially the old-fashioned brown ones). Icy winds sweeping round the corners and blowing grit into your eyes. Hares having boxing matches in the young corn.

April. - The smell of the earth after a shower. The pleasure of hearing the cuckoo punctually on the fourteenth; also of seeing the first swallow - which, in fact, is usually a sand-martin.

May. - Stewed rhubarb. The pleasure of not wearing underclothes.

June. - Cloud-bursts. The smell of hay, Going for walks after supper. The back-breaking labour of earthing up potatoes.

July. - Going to the office in shirt sleeves. The endless pop=pop-pop of cherry stones as one treads the London pavements.

August. - Midges. Plums. Sea bathing. Beds of geraniums, painful to look at. The dusty smell of water-carts.

September. - Blackberries. The first leaves turning. Heavy dew in the early mornings. The pleasure of seeing a fire in the grate again.

October. - Utterly windless days. Yellow elm trees looming up out of the mist, with all their leaves dead and none fallen.

November. - Raging gales. The smell of rubbish fires.

December. - Owls hooting. Cat ice on the piddles. Roast chestnuts. The sun hanging over the roof-tops like a crimson ball which one can study with the naked eye.

Those are merely my own associations. Anyone else's, I suppose, would be different, but they would probably be just as varied.

I cannot believe that in, say, California or New Zealand, or in the pleasure resorts of the Riviera, the months have so individual a flavour.

But how about January and February? February, I admit, is a particularly detestable month, with no virtue except its shortness. But in fairness to our climate one ought to remember that if we did not have this period of damp and cold, the rest of the year would be quite different.

The flavour of our fruits and vegetables depends on the rain-sodden soil and the slow coming of spring. With the doubtful exception of the banana and the pineapple, no fruit worth eating grows in a hot country. Even the orange and the lemon come from fairly temperate lands like Spain or Palestine, and the characteristic tropical fruits - mangoes, paw-paws, custard apples - are watery, tasteless things.

Fruits like apples and strawberries all need a period of frost and heavy rain, and never attain their best flavour in countries where the summer is really hot. The most attractive flowers also need a cold winter. In the plains of India, for instance, it is easy enough to grow zinnias or petunias, but the most skilful gardener alive could not grow a primrose or a wallflower or a daffodil.

If we want to make January and February less unpleasant than they are, we might start by building our houses more intelligently.

For instance, it would not be a bad idea to arrange the water pipes so that they do not burst every time there is a hard frost.

But that is a different question. What we shall have to decide, if this notion of changing the climate ever becomes practicable, is whether we want a dead level of continuous sunshine, or a few exquisite days paid for with fog, mud and sleet. When Shakespeare, describing this time of year, wrote:

When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw

he was describing rather disagreeable phenomena, and yet there is a kind of affection in the lines, a perception that everything has its place.

There is a time to sit in the garden in a deck chair, and there is a time to have chilblains and a dripping nose. Perhaps five days out of seven our climate gives us cause to curse it, but there are also days, especially in spring and autumn, when even the streets of London take on a beauty that is not found in sunnier lands.

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