British people are notorious for their endless fascination with the weather, and as the current lockdown enters its third month, and our restricted lives seem devoid of anything notable to discuss, this reliable standby is being deployed more than ever.
The weather has always been a topic that is utilised nationwide as an ice-breaker. When two strangers meet, in a train or a queue for example, it is virtually de rigueur to enjoy a short conversation about the weather. The primary function of this fascination with the weather is, of course, to break down the English person’s natural reserve; it offers a universal, and neutral, topic, which everyone, from a small child to an elderly grandmother, enjoys discussing.
This fascination with the weather is part of a long tradition, and ancient folklore is full of mantras for second-guessing the moods of the elements. Snow on St Dorothea’s Day (6 February) means no heavier snowfall that year, while rain on St Swithin’s Day (15 July) means it’ll continue for the next 40 days. The slightest tinge of a pink cloud can cause locals to chant ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’ and many a bored child has been reassured by the phrase ‘rain before seven, fine by eleven’. This year, we all enjoyed a ‘fools’ spring’, when exceptionally warm weather in February preceded a further ‘cold snap’.
Despite this obsession, the weather still keeps the English on their toes. A few weeks without rain and garden-hose bans are enacted; too much rain and rivers burst their banks, flooding low-lying towns. Similarly, a fall of snow (the amount that in Germany or Switzerland would be brushed off without a second thought) often brings English motorways to a standstill. The rail network is particularly susceptible to weather delay – trains have been cancelled for everything from leaves on the track to the wrong kind of snow.
Other countries endure far more noteworthy weather events – droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes – but the English weather is, above all, unpredictable. Sunshine, showers, wind and rain sweep across the country with extraordinary rapidity, providing an ever-changing outlook. And in these days of global warming, English people can now enjoy discussing ever more capricious weather – blizzards in April, floods in July, and so on. With the weather as a topic, conversation is never going to falter.