It’s that difficult time of year when almost everyone in the Northern Hemisphere is celebrating the return of the sun and I’m longing for morning drizzles and cool, overcast afternoons. I don’t usually confess my hatred of sunshine and heat in public, because it makes me feel a bit like Scrooge (except that my Christmas is springtime), and also because confessing elicits, at best, incredulous questions — Didn’t you grow up in the tropics? Aren’t you used to the heat? — and at worst, a level of discomfort bordering on outrage. Then I’m left mumbling apologies, assuring my interlocutor that I have no control over the weather and cannot turn the skies grey no matter how much I might like to, concocting pseudo-scientific explanations about my blood having thickened in the nineteen years since I left the tropics.
“Even your weather preferences have been colonised!” a friend of mine once said to me. He was half-joking — in my conscious life I’m about as anti-colonial as they get, and my friend knew it — but it’s true that the weather I love best is what most people think of as English weather: mist, fog, pissing rain, weather conducive to curling up in front of a crackling fire with tea and crumpets at your side. It’s the weather that the grand old hotels of the tropics like to evoke in their bars and lounges done up in dark wood and tiger skins, fitted — I kid you not — with fireplaces, christened The Raj Room or The Bengal Lounge or The Planter’s Café. And my love for English weather does, in fact, have much to do with colonialism — not with the concrete colonisation that depends on invasions and battles and treaties between old men, but with the type of colonisation that happens under that surface and therefore continues long after declarations of independence have been signed. I loved English weather long before I ever got to experience it, loved it as a child whose most reliable companions were fictional English children who pressed their despondent noses to windowpanes and watched the rain fall for hours; as an adolescent revelling in the magnificent opening of Bleak House and the romanticism of Wuthering Heights; as a college student analysing The Waste Land.
In her essay “On Seeing England For First Time,” Jamaica Kincaid talks about her own earliest perceptions of the weather in English novels:
The weather was so remarkable because the rain fell gently always,
only occasionally in deep gusts, and it coloured the air various
shades of grey, each an appealing shade for a dress to be worn when
a portrait was being painted; and when it rained at twilight,
wonderful things happened: people bumped into each other
unexpectedly and that would lead to all sorts of turns of events — a
plot, the mere weather caused plots.
Kincaid is particularly eloquent, but of course she’s not the first person who grew up in the tropics feeling that Things happened elsewhere. As with many stereotypes, there’s some truth to the popular association between relentless heat and lethargy: when it’s hot, who really wants to do anything other than laze on the verandah with a cool drink (or, if your beverage choices have been sufficiently colonised, a cup of hot tea)? Whereas the progression of seasons, at least when you read about them from a great distance, seems to drive desire and activity. A young man’s fancy can’t turn to love in spring when there is no spring, but thanks to Frank Sinatra my parents’ generation had some inkling of what they were missing:
…April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom
Holiday tables under the trees
April in Paris, this is a feeling
That no one can ever reprise…
Winter, we knew, was all about yearning and feeling hollow, as in:
All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey
I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day…
And I’m laying out my winter clothes, wishing I was gone, goin’ home
Where the New York City winters aren’t a bleedin’ me…
Summer turned you footloose and fancy-free:
T-shirts, cut-offs, and a pair of thongs
We’ve been having fun all summer long…
But even with these learning aids we knew we were missing something. We suspected that emotions themselves were more intense in temperate climes, that we did not, could not, feel as deeply as those whose hearts were wrung out and refilled, year after year, by the inexorable wheel of spring-summer-autumn-winter.
Shortly after I read Sadie Jones’s debut novel, I came across this essay, in which she identifies the heat of summer as a character in that novel. She suggests that though warm, dry weather is rare in England, so many beloved English pursuits depend upon it that when it happens, “there is a heightened, trembling perfection to the occasion.” A sense of waiting, too, of something huge hovering just around the corner. Relentless summer heat features prominently in two of my all-time favourite English novels — The Go-Between and Atonement — and in this amazing story by the English writer Clare Wigfall. The correlation between heat and narrative tension is one of those things you might never have noticed, but once you start looking, you see it everywhere; most people reading this can probably make long lists of their own to support Jones’s theory. What particularly intrigues me is the possibility that different types of weather produce this feeling of imminent upheaval in different parts of the world. On my friend Elizabeth’s delightfully nosy blog, a recent interviewee talks about how the smells of September triggers within her a sensation of infinite possibility. Maybe English weather, being as rare and exotic in Malaysia as a Mediterranean summer is in England, is my own something-is-about-to-happen signal. Or maybe this is entire blog post is nothing but the latest and most elaborate attempt in a long line of attempts to justify my perverse hatred of sunshine: my blood has thickened; my skin stored up all the sun it needed while I was still a kid; don’t blame me, blame the British empire. And look, I’ve just devoted one thousand words to the subject of weather: if that doesn’t demonstrate the extent of my Anglicisation, I don’t know what does.
[photo credit: amandabhslater on flickr]