Sunday, 18 January 2015

Funny Weather

It's that time of year again for us Brits, isn't it?

Winter in Britain really does make our stereotype (always talking about the weather) into something of an untruth. It's strange but true. We might say 'oh, it's going to snow, you know?' or 'I'd better get my canoe out, they're predicting a light shower' but in truth it's the one season when we mention the climate a lot less than normal.

That it might snow in winter, or rain heavily for that matter, is hardly earth-shattering news, although if it were that severe then surely we would have started to evolve long furry coats and webbed-feet. Norfolk aside, that just isn't true.

I believe that what keeps us relatively quiet is the fact that all we can be moderately certain of is that winter will bring some cold, wet weather to our tiny shores. For the rest of the year we can look up uncertainly, and let's face it, weather forecasts tend to be no more accurate than horoscopes in the main. We're a nation that thrives on the lack of certainty about such things, and it's this that gets us talking about all matters climactic. Winter, therefore, is at a disadvantage.

The weather really does bring out the contradictory nature of us Brits. I've travelled around a fair bit and I have many friends (ok, acquaintances) from different parts of the globe - and in my experience, we have the oddest, most normally unpredictable climate of any nation. But that still doesn't explain why are quite happy to use the good old Imperial measurements for high heat - 'it's nearly one hundred degrees, you know' (Fahrenheit) and yet switch to the 'modern' system for cold - 'it's almost five below out there' (or 'in here' if you're 70+) (Celsius). Given that a great many of us - well, of you, anyway - grew up after we had 'switched over' to non-Imperial measurements, and given how many of the ancient - well, of my - generation - view the 'modern' systems with distrust, it's quite remarkable how we use both systems together.

Some of us poor ancients have even seen the 'new' system re-named in our lifetimes. For those blissfully unaware (or young enough, to put it another way) this 'Celsius' thing is to us 'Centigraders' a twist of an already unpalatable knife.

The even poorer sods of my generation were treated to various actual switchovers.

We had to learn how to count in pounds, shillings and pence and were then made to translate everything into pounds and 'new pence'. Two of the new pences replaced five of the old, for instance - and my Beano went up from a near-untranslatable four pennies old to the new two. Daylight robbery.

Our weight used to be measured in stones, pounds and ounces but was switched to kilograms, heights were feet and inches but became centimetres, and petrol was once bought by the gallon rather than the litre. At least we still call a pint a pint - but there again, we need them after all that change.

What was wrong with counting in bases twelve, fourteen, sixteen, twenty or one thousand seven hundred and sixty (or 1.609344 kilometres) - and all subdivided variously into such lovely measurements as farthings, rods, fractions, inches, yards, poles, perches and chains (one of the latter being the length of a cricket pitch, by the way)?

And they were 'pennies', not 'pence', 'new' or otherwise. Even pronunciations were gloriously Imperial - 'threpny' and 'hapeny' - or unique to that older, more colourful time - , 'tanner' and 'bob', 'florin', 'half-crown' and 'guinea'.

There again, I suppose that does all go some way to explaining why so many of the older generation can't actually count very well...

But the weather? Regardless of what some say - greenhouse effects, and so forth - the weather has always been there in all it's unpredictable British glory. In 1963 the sea froze and in 1976 (one year I can remember, especially as I was 15 and surrounded by overheated girls) we were treated to a summer heat-wave of tarmac-melting intensity.

It's winter, though, when predictability (1963 not withstanding) renders us very un-stereotypical. Yes, it's going to be cold whether the temperature actually drops to zero (or 32 in Fahrenheit) and yes, it's going to be wet even if the gopher wood. isn't needed just yet. But those facts leave us with very little to say about the weather for once.

Back in the nineties (at least years and months haven't been decimalised yet, although perhaps that would somehow convert my age into the teens) I spent some time in Scotland and was treated to British weather at its eccentric best. One day I drove through howling rain, a near gale, brilliant sunshine and then, of all things, snow. When I reached my destination I remarked to a local that the weird weather must be why some people refer to Scotland often experiencing 'four seasons in a day'. The weary resident just turned to me and shrugged. 'I just call it a normal April day for this place', he said.

Perhaps that's unpredictability taken to its extreme, but at least I got talking to one of the normally taciturn locals - thanks to the topic of weather. Had it been just a normal winter's day there, though - snow and ice were guaranteed - then there would have been nothing to remark on. And perhaps I still wouldn't be trying to translate some of the things the guy said.

So, here's hoping the winter isn't too cold for you. Or too warm.

Happy Season!

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