To quote Downing Street’s Larry the cat, tweeting from his unofficial account in early summer, “British weather: Too cold and wet, too cold and wet, too cold and wet, too cold and wet, too cold and wet, too cold and wet. Sun… Too hot. Illustration: Hannah

The mystery of Britain's love-hate relationship with the sun

We love to complain when it's too cold—and complain when it's too hot. What's the happy medium?
July 16, 2021

Packing for a summer holiday in the British Isles is as close as most of us are likely to come to sampling the “mysterymoon,” aka the surprise-destination honeymoon that could take you anywhere from sunny Barcelona to Australia in the winter. Out comes the suitcase and in go wispy sundresses and woolly socks, shorts and pullovers, straw hats and of course an umbrella—do not forget the umbrella.

With five distinct air masses coming at us from different directions, the sheer variability of the British climate creates its own drama. While other nations are battered by monsoons and hurricanes, we can experience several seasons’ worth of weather in a single day. It’s no wonder that we’re so ready to offer up meteorological observations—there’s just so much to say. Social anthropologist Kate Fox memorably found that 94 per cent of Brits had spoken about the weather within the previous six hours.

And yet as a nation we continue to long for sunshine with the kind of communal fervour usually reserved for sporting trophies. As summer nears, the tabloids fill with excitable predictions about heatwaves, and if ever one materialises it is hold-the-front-page, as snappers scramble for pictures of sun-worshippers packing pebbly beaches, their bare limbs basking beneath a miasma of barbeque smoke.

In a country where nearly two-thirds of us apparently lack enough vitamin D, the British sunshine-mania is stoked by scarcity, intensifying our experience when the clouds finally part. Amid the rain-plumped lushness of Britain’s rolling fields and city squares, those golden rays seem to reach us ready-burnished with nostalgia. They are transformative, adding a happy filter to the everyday: we knock off early, and after-work drinks become carnivals as pub-goers spill out onto pavements. We dine al fresco, even if it merely involves eating a tub of salad on a pigeon-ringed bench; the local lido, which usually requires a wetsuit, shimmers invitingly as a Hockney-esque swimming pool.

There’s a lightness to summer living when the sun beams down on us. We shed not just layers but inhibitions, briefly embodying the Mediterranean versions of ourselves, which we imagine to be expansive and eternally easy-going. It’s no wonder that a recent Opinium survey found 84 per cent of Brits claiming “sunshine and good weather” as a mood booster.

Yet the famously mercurial British weather also heightens the pressure to make the most of it while it lasts (and it won’t). Does this account for the behaviour of mad dogs and Englishmen in the sun—for the scorched backs, beer-garden benders and high-noon barbecues? Maybe, but then again, nothing in Britain is designed for the heat, and that includes large portions of its population. It doesn’t take long for the grumbling to commence, and just as with the wind and clouds, it takes the form of a very British lament. To quote Downing Street’s Larry the cat, tweeting from his unofficial account in early summer, “British weather: Too cold and wet, too cold and wet, too cold and wet, too cold and wet, too cold and wet, too cold and wet. Sun… Too hot.” Then comes the rain, and the whole dysfunctional cycle begins all over again. Some of the grumblers have a point—you don’t need to have read cli-fi novels, like Rosa Rankin-Gee’s Margate-set Dreamland, to find weeks-long heatwaves ominous.

But is there truly a correlation between wellbeing and warm weather? Certainly not to the extent that those of us confined to cooler climes assume. More than 20 years ago, Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade set about discovering whether sun-soaked Californians really were happier than Midwesterners, and if the weather played a role. They weren’t and it didn’t. Moreover, the psychologists concluded, “our research suggests a moral, and a warning: nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.”

In other words, by focusing on sunshine too much, we risk elevating its importance to an inhibiting extent. All the same, I can’t help thinking that had either academic grown up in Britain, they’d know there is something you can helpfully focus on when it comes to summer excursions: remembering to take a brolly.