Sunshine: not to be missed
I was powering along the French autoroute in my truly awful car wishing I had gone into mining precious metals or something when my travelling companion piped up from the passenger seat: “Why are you driving so fast?”
It was a good question. We were heading to a small town called Beaune. There was no rush. We weren’t late. We hadn’t even booked anywhere to stay. Nobody was expecting us. The world was even more indifferent to our progress than usual.
“I don’t know,” I replied, backing off a little.
“At least it’s not raining anymore.”
“That’s it,” I said, turning to her. “That’s it.”
“What’s what?” she frowned. “Keep your eyes on the road, you idiot.”
Now, as everybody knows, one of the main reasons to go on holiday is to facilitate just such road-to-Damascus experiences. Indeed, it’s not really a holiday until you have had one. And I knew immediately that this was mine. I had suddenly understood the very quiddity of Britishness. The truth revealed itself in a shaft of Burgundian light: I was driving too fast because… the sun was shining.
“What?” I hear you cry. “Because the sun was shining? Surely, if there is one thing that defines the British is our relationship with the rain.”
Well, actually, no.
Consider the following. You are in Rome writing a sophisticated novel. It’s 30 degrees and the sky is as azure as a field of chicory flowers. You duck inside the darkened doorway of an amenable palazzo—glad to do so—and there you sit behind heavy shutters in cool darkness while you work merrily away confident in the knowledge that it will be just as hot and just as sunny when you emerge. Confident, indeed, that the sun will be shining every day for the foreseeable future and that you will be able to dine al fresco morning, noon and night for months and months and months. The rain, if ever it falls again, will pass quickly and will be but an amusing and refreshing counterpoint.
Or perhaps you’re in Provence—consolidating your thoughts on Proust. You switch off the several fans in your study and out you come for a spot of light lunch. Squinting and desperately seeking shade, you sit down to enjoy your properly ripened tomatoes et cetera. Someone suggests a picnic three days hence. You nod casually and the conversation moves on. At no time does it enter the communal mind to consider the weather. Because, of course, in three days time, it will be gloriously sunny: the picnic is wholly assured, a matter merely of local markets and sun creams.
Now consider the same two scenarios in, say, Manchester and London.
The sun comes out in Manchester! Extraordinary! You dismount the tram in wonder. People everywhere are injuring one another as they collide while staring up at the blue of an all but forgotten sky. You are suddenly afflicted by agonies of the soul, a deep mournfulness, a paralysing depression, as you realise that you must lock yourself away in Central Library. Will you ever see the sun again? Is this brief morning the entirety of summer? Are you about to miss it? Once inside, of course, you will be unable to work—fretting away as to whether you should finish early and get back outside in the hope of finding some tramp-bothered bench on which to munch your appalling sandwich for as long as you dare call a lunch hour.
Likewise, imagine the sheer anxiety attending the announcement of a planned picnic in one of London’s parks. Christ, the anxiety. Imagine the man-hours spent by the various parties checking and re-checking forecasts. Imagine the various weather apps deployed, the email traffic, the phone calls, the confirmations, the re-thinks, the call-offs, plans b, c and d. Imagine the psychological turmoil of the organiser and the sheer emotional resource expended by all the would-be attendees. Imagine the day itself—the sluicing rain, then the break in the cloud, the hope, the bright spells, the decision to chance it, the wind, and then, by lunch time, the grey-hulled task force of destroyer clouds moving in from the west.
My friends, it is not our relationship with rain that defines our character; it is our relationship with the sun. We are a nation tormented not by bad weather but by good. The rain we know and can live with; it is when the sun comes out that we go insane.
The sun shines and unlike our European brothers, we cannot relax or enjoy, or carry on with our lives, or continue our work, but must instead rush frantically out of doors to sunbathe, to eat, to drink, to clasp each brief ray to our collective bosom. We hear rumours of a “heat wave” and like frenzied ants, we swarm from our nests racing to our national parks, rivers, coasts. Sun! Will it last? What shall I wear? Do we still need the marquee? If we set out early, will the roads be empty? Will it still be hot after my exams or should I go out right now? Where the hell are my sunglasses? Which pub has a garden? Shall I buy charcoal, a barbecue? How do I make a salad?
Let me coin a phrase: Weather Anxiety; this, I submit, is the essence of the British character. This is the sink down which we pour our national energy. This is the uneasiness that pervades our psyche. And, yes, this was the reason that I was driving too fast on the autoroute—because I was worried that the sun was going to disappear before we got a chance to get out of the car. No, it’s not the way we feel when it’s cold and raining that marks us out as British, it’s the way we feel when it’s hot and sunny. Panicked. Hurried. Anxious.