A British History In Weather

Episodes

TitleFirst
Broadcast
Comments
Beginnings And Endings20160520

Alexandra Harris tells the story of how the weather has written and painted itself into the cultural life of Britain.

In this series I've been out in all sorts of ancient rainstorms and heatwaves. I've tried to ask how people have experienced and represented the weather in Britain, and especially how it's been imaginatively transformed in writing and painting. Wind and rain have inspired a great deal of art, but I think the arts have also, partly, made our weather. There might be a ghost story somewhere deep behind our experience of low mist, or remembered film music behind the year's first snow.

There's a character in Oscar Wilde's essay 'The Decay of Lying' who takes this idea to extremes. He proposes that we see in nature what art shows us to be there. He's willing to contend that the London fogs barely existed before painters started painting them. Then suddenly there were Whistler effects every night in Battersea and Monets rising up from the Thames. Art, he says, invented the fog. Well, that may be ridiculous, but perhaps there's a wisp of truth in it. The images and associations we all carry in mind shape what we see in the air.

Books and pictures hold the record of how people over centuries have stared out of the window or bent into the wind. They allow us to look up with many pairs of eyes, everyone seeing a little differently."

Music by Jon Nicholls. Producer: Tim Dee.

Britain And The Sun20160512

Alexandra Harris tells the story of how the weather has written and painted itself into the cultural life of Britain. Britain and the sun: a rare treat?

I kept a kind of weather diary during a hot spell last summer. I didn't try to record pressure or the movement of air fronts - I'd have been hopeless at that - but just noted some ordinary details of life in the warm, basic ingredients from which summer days are made. There's the waking up already hot with a single sheet in a crumpled mess, and why does the traffic sound louder - o yes because the window's open behind the curtain. Best keep the curtains closed all day. So the house stays dark, and there's a white-green flash when you come back into it from brightness, before the eyes have adapted, as well as the swooning doziness of sitting at a desk again after half an hour in the sun. There's all the action in the street outside, people going to the park, hot children pulling scooters, hotter children crying, music from open car windows, wasps in the kitchen, a cloud of heat hovering half way up the stairs. In the evening the scent of lilac pools in the stillness; you can walk into it like a room."

Music by Jon Nicholls. Producer: Tim Dee.

Holiday On Ice20160516

Alexandra Harris tells the story of how the weather has written and painted itself into the cultural life of Britain. When the rivers froze: frost fairs and merry making on ice.

The winter of 1608-9 was so cold that the Thames froze over. At ebb tide, when the river was shallow, a few brave people walked gingerly right across. It was a bitter Christmas - and then, in the middle of January, the frost really took hold. By the 15th the river was solid from bank to bank. People crowded to Temple Stairs to see if what they heard was true - that the great highway of London was at a halt.

So it was, but there was a new highway in the making. There were tents being thrown up, and barrels of ale rolled out. Soon there was bowling and skittles, musicians were playing, there was dancing, drinking, eating. Someone lit a fire, the ice held: the fire was stoked and a hog roasted, turning and turning in the flames. An alternative world was forming on the river, improvised and ungoverned. You climbed down into it on steep ladders, or at the water stairs, as if you were boarding a boat, except that that there were no boats to board. The ferrymen, out of work, set their oars aside and took charge of the growing carnival."

Music by Jon Nicolls. Producer: Tim Dee.

In Cloudland20160518

Alexandra Harris tells the story of how the weather has written and painted itself into the cultural life of Britain. Are we to clouds what the Eskimo was to snow?

Cloud meant 'hill' in Middle English, a solid, earthy thing. But then these hills started appearing in the sky. Looking at a cumulus cloud, rising bumpy and steep-sided above us, it's easy to see why. These are the Pennines and Snowdonias of the air. For a while in the fourteenth century, the same Northumbrian poem could contain both types of cloud, the tangible and the metaphorical, before gradually the earthy meaning faded, leaving its solid residue in our words clot and clod. The figurative meaning soared, and clouds were ever after phenomena of the sky.

Music by Jon Nicholls. Producer: Tim Dee.

Omnibus 120161021

Alexandra Harris tells the story of how the weather has written and painted itself into the cultural life of Britain in a history of a country and its culture told by its weather from the earliest days to the present, come rain come shine.

During Wind and Rain will bear witness to Britain's cultural climates across the centuries. Before the Norman Conquest, Anglo-Saxons living in a wintry world wrote about the coldness of exile or the shelters they had to defend against enemies outside. The Middle Ages brought the warmth of spring; the new lyrics were sung in praise of blossoms and cuckoos. Descriptions of a rainy night are rare before 1700, but by the end of the eighteenth century the Romantics had adopted the squall as a fit subject for their most probing thoughts.

The weather is vast and yet we experience it intimately, and Alexandra Harris builds her story from small details. There is the drawing of a twelfth-century man in February, warming bare toes by the fire. There is the tiny glass left behind from the Frost Fair of 1684, and the Sunspan house in Angmering that embodies the bright ambitions of the 1930s. There are distinct voices of compelling individuals. ""Bloody cold,"" says Jonathan Swift in the ""slobbery"" January of 1713. Percy Shelley wants to become a cloud and John Ruskin wants to bottle one. During Wind and Rain is a celebration of British air and a life story of those who have lived in it.

With music by Jon Nicholls. Producer: Tim Dee

Omnibus 220161028

Alexandra Harris tells the story of how the weather has written and painted itself into the cultural life of Britain.

During Wind and Rain will bear witness to Britain's cultural climates across the centuries. Before the Norman Conquest, Anglo-Saxons living in a wintry world wrote about the coldness of exile or the shelters they had to defend against enemies outside. The Middle Ages brought the warmth of spring; the new lyrics were sung in praise of blossoms and cuckoos. Descriptions of a rainy night are rare before 1700, but by the end of the eighteenth century the Romantics had adopted the squall as a fit subject for their most probing thoughts.

The weather is vast and yet we experience it intimately, and Alexandra Harris builds her story from small details. There is the drawing of a twelfth-century man in February, warming bare toes by the fire. There is the tiny glass left behind from the Frost Fair of 1684, and the Sunspan house in Angmering that embodies the bright ambitions of the 1930s. There are distinct voices of compelling individuals. ""Bloody cold,"" says Jonathan Swift in the ""slobbery"" January of 1713. Percy Shelley wants to become a cloud and John Ruskin wants to bottle one. During Wind and Rain is a celebration of British air and a life story of those who have lived in it.

With music by Jon Nicholls. Producer: Tim Dee.

Punishing Weather20160513

Alexandra Harris tells the story of how the weather has written and painted itself into the cultural life of Britain. Punishing weather: do we deserve the weather we get?

Weather and time have often been twinned. They are linked by one word in Latin, tempus. Quel temps fait-il, ask the French. Proust's time regained is also the weather of memory revisited. In English the connection is less clear because our word for weather is from Norse 'weder', but still there is a long and potent tradition of thought that links the passing of time with the mobile, changeful, ever-passing weather. In this tradition time and weather began together when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden into an imperfect and impermanent world.

Music by Jon Nicholls. Producer: Tim Dee.

Rain20160517

Alexandra Harris tells the story of how the weather has written and painted itself into the cultural life of England. Why does British rain fall on British people in spits and spots?

Imagine a history told in rain. King Offa's Mercia in eight-century rain, stonemasons building St Andrews cathedral in the rain. The rain as it fell on St Swithin (whose views on the matter are not recorded other than in legend), and the same old rain falling centuries later on Thomas More and his daughter, on Milton, on Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale. How do they feel? Do they go indoors? Does the rain they see fall like tears or an ill omen or a blessing? There would be a lot of repetition in this history. Rain is continuity: it's what we share. And yet it never rains in the same way twice, and even in the same shower, no two people see the same.

The shipping forecast at 48 minutes past midnight takes us on a ritual tour of rain as it falls in darkness on the sea. Images form of places we have probably never been. Cold headlands appear, unvisited beaches, discs and dials in a cabin, moving lights on black swell, crossed by slanting rain. Malin, Hebrides, Bailey. Listening, we think of others listening. Rain, then showers. Moderate, occasionally poor.

Music by Jon Nicholls. Producer: Tim Dee.

Storm20160519

Alexandra Harris tells the story of how the weather has written and painted itself into the cultural life of Britain. An island at sea - the storms of King Lear and Turner and others.

Any storm has its drama, but Coleridge knew the particular exhilaration of this place. The lane west from Lynton leads into a giant, irregular bowl of heathland known as the Valley of the Rocks. From the cramped streets of the village the walker is thrown out into an alien land where rocks stick up like injured bones from the earth. Even on a calm day the wind in this valley is enough to drown out voices and make the eyes water; the ear canals ache with the pressure. Blowing in from the Bristol Channel, the north and north-west gales are funnelled into the bowl where they beat around furiously, trying to get free. Coleridge wanted to be in the midst of this great weather theatre, opening himself to its energy, feeling its effects on his skin, his nerves, his imagination.

Music by Jon Nicholls. Producer: Tim Dee.

Wind20160511

Alexandra Harris tells the story of how the weather has written and painted itself into the cultural life of Britain.

The blasted country - a windy island.

There was a proper gust, I remember, which sent dry leaves off across the pavement into shop doorways and blew back my hood. And something caught my eye as I looked up. Way above me in the grey sky, at the top of Chichester cathedral spire, there was a glint of light. It was the weathervane turning. It must just momentarily have caught the sun. And then there it was in distant silhouette again, with its big flat rooster tail. I'd never noticed it, and yet it had been up there all the time - up in the weather which goes on continuously, regardless of us, up there as well as down here in the street."

With music by Jon Nicholls. Producer: Tim Dee.