Friday, 14 March 2014

Conversations about Weather

As a teenager living in the small market town of Shipston-on-Stour, I augmented my five pounds or so weekly pocket money with the wages of a paper round, six days a week for Martins newsagent delivering mainly to Callaways and Springfield Road. Most mornings I would cross paths with the old couple who handled the local milk round, and whichever one of them I saw first would always greet me with some casual observation regarding the weather. The sky would be blue, prompting a prediction of a pleasant day ahead. If it was grey, I would be told that it looked like we were due for some rain.

I was fourteen, and I really didn't care. The weather would do whatever it was going to do, and I could see no point in discussion. Even at that age I was easily irritated by what I considered to be inane conversation, despite most of what came out of my own mouth arguably belonging to the selfsame category. I told my mother as much, expecting support, understanding that she too had little patience with meaningless chatter.

She frowned, apparently bemused, and explained that weather-related conversation is a valuable institution, something which should not be taken lightly. Years later, I have come around to sharing this view. No-one is really that interested in the weather, but it's either that or greetings along the lines of I acknowledge that you and I have little in common and so wish to impress upon you that I have as yet formed no explicit objection to anything you may say whilst reminding you that any subject discussed beyond a certain level of detail is likely to be a source of embarrassment for both of us, and so with this in mind I offer you both my greeting and fervent hope that you may judge this encounter accurately in terms of how interesting I'm likely to find whatever you say next.

Conversations about weather - possibly excepting those occurring between meteorologists - are for the most part more about social interaction than exchange of information, a means of establishing that we're talking roughly the same language; and apparently the English are known for them.

Sometimes my wife will comment upon the weather, and for a moment I'll wonder if she is simply trying to make me feel at home, but I realise this can't be the case because - aside from the obvious point that I actually am home by most definitions that matter - she never tries to engage me in discussion regarding members of the Royal Family or football teams. Probably it is because the weather here in San Antonio is of some interest to me, it being quite unlike that which I experienced for the first forty or so years of my life, because it seems fair to say that England is significantly colder than Texas.

I grew up on a dairy farm, living for my first decade in the house which came with my father's job. Heating was provided by a single fireplace and warm clothing, and due to subsidence there were cracks in the walls of the house through which one could pass a newspaper, provided it wasn't rolled up and there hadn't been much happening in the way of news that week. In winter it snowed at least enough for the construction of life-sized snowmen to which we could have commuted by sledge had we so chosen. Of course, being young and unable to remember previous lives lived in ancient Egypt due to there being no such thing as reincarnation, I lacked an understanding of the wider context of climate, and it didn't seem so much that it was cold as simply that this was how things were during the months around Christmas. I knew there were warmer places in the world, but I was unable to relate them to my own experience.

As I grew older, I came to dislike the cold weather more and more, not least following one frozen day in the winter of 1984 when I left the home I shared with two others in Leeds village, Kent, heading for art college without too much thought wasted on why no water had emerged from the bathroom tap that morning. I understood that the pipes had frozen, but assumed this was simply an inconvenience which would pass once they were thawed later in the day. I didn't know to leave the taps open so as to prevent the pipes bursting when the thaw came, but the lesson was learned that evening as I returned home, looking out from the window of the bus as we passed our house to see something that resembled the frozen tomb of the Cybermen from the Doctor Who story of the same name, ten foot icicles each as thick as a human being drooping majestically from the window of Reuben's bedroom up on the first floor. Several villagers had strapped snow chains to their feet and were stood around taking photographs, having braved the weather on the promise of a sight to remember.

Between the farm and moving away from home, I had lived in a house with central heating and had thus become spoiled, accustomed to certain minor luxuries such as not freezing one's knackers off for nine months of the year. As a student I was reacquainted with the living conditions of my formative years, spending most winters huddled over a series of portable gas fires, shivering in five layers of clothing as the winter sun crept reluctantly above the tree line before sinking back down again in the late afternoon.

In 1988 I took a job with Royal Mail, becoming a postman and so resigning myself to pounding pavements in all conditions for six days of the week, painfully aware of having once celebrated the final day of my paper round with the promise that I would never do anything like that ever again. During the next twenty-one years I reached an unprecedented degree of intimacy with the elements, wind, rain, snow, sleet, and - most hated of all - the cold, and in particular the sort of cold that gets into your bones and stays there, which can only be shifted with a long and dangerously hot bath. The two dominant sacred powers of the Precolombian Mexican world were held to represent not good and evil, but hot and cold - roughly speaking - with cold as a force in its own right rather than a simple absence of heat; and two decades as a postman gave me some insight into how the Mexicans may have arrived at such a belief.

As years passed I came to resent English winters more and more, usually suffering mild depression each October as I began to contemplate the dark months ahead, the freezing wind and rain winding down to a little over a six hour day of dark slate skies in place of anything one might properly identify as daylight, coupled with the absurdly increased work load around Christmas, and the promise of at least a few days during which I would leave for work hours before dawn and arrive home exhausted and freezing cold long after the sun had set. Needless to say this presented a considerable impediment to my ever feeling even remotely Christmassy, and Lenny Henry wearing reindeer antlers and shouting katanga, my friends somehow just wasn't enough to get me there.

Whilst it would be ridiculous to suggest that I moved to Texas for the sake of living somewhere with warmer weather, I wasn't exactly upset by the idea. I had already been to Mexico City a few times and come to appreciate the more equatorial climate - even the less frequent grey skies being brighter, even cheerier due to the angle of the sun; and tropic rainfall as a spectacular and dynamic event of almost Biblical passion in contrast to the month after month of English drizzle and damp. Amongst all other considerations, Texas was a step in the general direction of Mexico, which was as such very much the right direction so far as I was concerned.

On the other hand, the heat can reach such extremes in this part of the state as to present its own problems, so it was never really a case of swapping six foot snowdrifts for afternoons spent on the beach drinking piƱa colada from a coconut shell. The outside temperature reached 107°F during my first August in San Antonio, staying close to this figure until the end of September, meaning that outdoor activities were best undertaken well before midday. The few occasions when I stayed out gardening until two in the afternoon, even working in the shade, I suffered a terrible heat stroke which knocked me out for the rest of the week; so the situation is comparable with that of the old country in so much as each has a few months of the year during which the elements drive us to seek cover, but the months are different and Texas depends on air conditioning rather than central heating to get us through the chewy part.

Texas winter on the other hand has no direct comparison. Some days resemble those of the finest English summer, and warm spells can last for weeks at a time; then suddenly we'll wake to frost and a freezing wind that cuts into your bones as sharp as anything arisen from the North Atlantic.

Typically, when I now speak to members of my family on the telephone, weather is almost always amongst the first subjects to appear on the table.

If it is summer, I'll try to describe the climate here in terms of eggs fried upon pavements, the planet Venus, or the experience of walking into a pizza oven, although I know that San Antonio is temperate compared to the outdoor furnace of Houston, and that my descriptions will inevitably prove inadequate, sounding like I'm reading aloud from a science-fiction novel.

If it is winter, I'll ask about the English snow, the wind, the rain, the arriving indoors with face stinging from hail and rainwater seeping into shoes, not because I like to hear about these things, but through genuine admiration for anyone able to endure such a climate, and I still like to remind myself that it's December and I'm probably stood outside in a T-shirt and shorts unless it's one of the cold patches. Furthermore, I fear that my descriptions of the Texan non-winter will sound like I'm crowing.

Frost and ice are mild here, of a severity that would barely merit comment in England; and yet as I venture outside I see that everyone else is wrapped up in anticipation of Arctic conditions, and I feel like Superman, freshly arrived from Krypton and enjoying his strange, new powers in this unfamiliar environment; but because San Antonio has so little experience of the conditions that would be recognised as winter in England, no-one is prepared, no roads are gritted, and so it all evens out.

Then the wind comes, and it seems so strong that I end up staying inside, taking shelter, just as I would have done in Coventry, wondering if I have acclimatised so quickly that what would once have barely seemed noticeable now feels to me like a scene from The Day After Tomorrow. So I'm caught between two meteorological worlds, scoffing to myself as neighbours regard their own breath misting upon the air with abject horror, yet nevertheless finding myself donning three layers and bracing myself against the icy wind. It seems peculiar, and I long for the baking summer, sweating indoors with the air conditioning on full, occasionally going outside to gather up the eggs I've been frying on the pavement, but it has at least given me some reason to talk about the weather, and tomorrow may be warm once again.

1 comment:

  1. I experience such a thing to a lesser degree having moved from Wellington to Auckland. Auckland's warm-temperate climate means that "hot" means 26 degrees and humid; "cold" means 9 degrees and damp. The difference with Wellington is three degrees colder and a whole bucketload windier. But that's enough that I can't imagine moving back to Welly unless I can afford a central-heated house.

    My missus went to uni in Dunedin (6 degrees colder than Auckland with no wind, at a latitude where the sun sets at 3:30 in midwinter) and I can't even imagine what that must be like, although she says the lack of wind makes it better than Welly. Continental climates are beyond my ken. I've got friends who've moved to Melbourne suffering through their first 35 degree summer and... it's like hearing someone trying to describe the climate on Venus. I have nothing to compare it to.