The French accuse the British of talking about little else other than the weather. They are right, we do. We talk about it a lot. Then again, we have a lot of weather to talk about. In a country that can routinely lay on four seasons in a single day, it is not that surprising that our climate figures prominently in our conversational range.
And talking about the weather suits our character. It avoids the need to talk about anything remotely personal that could lead to any hint of embarrassment. And it allows us to moan stoically thereby indulging two of our most important national traits – complaining and enduring – at the same time.
But down here in southern France I have noticed that we are not alone in our preoccupation with the weather. Every conversation with a local seems to go the same way: “Mon Dieu, c’est trop chaud”. They are right it is hot, a sweltering 36 degrees as I am writing this under a tree in the garden. But what is extraordinary is that they seem surprised that it is so warm.
What were they expecting? This is Provence in August, not Spitsbergen in February. When they open the shutters each morning are they amazed to see blue sky and sunshine rather than deep snow? Are they taken aback by the sight of wooded hills of chestnut, pine and olive rather than glaciers and ice floes?
“Be careful” cautions the lady at the vineyard. “Don’t leave the wine in your car too long, it will turn into vinegar”. “Take care” says the man who comes to tend the donkeys that graze on the edge of the wood by this house, “it will be very hot if you go outside”. And there was me all togged up in my hat and scarf, zipped up in my cagoule about to head down to the pool with my hot water bottle.
Even though a large chunk of their country has essentially a North African climate, the French are resolutely North European in their meteorological mindset. They seem psychologically prepared for rain, cloud and general drear and then taken aback by hot summers and cloudless skies. All of which lends weight to my latest theory about how the weather has influenced our history or to be more precise, the importance of drizzle in shaping the fortunes of mankind.
What have Bill Gates, Alexander Bell, Captain Cook and Steve Jobs all got in common? They all come from countries or cities with persistent precipitation. And it is the rain that has either spurred them to take off and explore the world or head indoors and invent something. Drizzle: much derided and moaned about but also the catalyst behind many of the great moments in our history.
Like many of my theories, this one does not stand up to too much critical scrutiny. In fact a cursory review of the great civilisations of the past few centuries demonstrates that there are a few notable logical gaps in the drizzle theory.
The Romans are an obvious early exception. Can you imagine the commanding officer of a group of Roman legionnaires: “Right lads, on your feet and get marching. We’ve got to invade Germany, build the Coliseum, introduce chariot racing to Libya and invent central heating. And that’s just this morning”.
“Actually sir, we rather thought we might stay here a while and finish these ripe succulent figs drizzled with lavender-scented honey and washed down by a flagon or two of this lovely pink wine we have had chilling in the cool waters of this mountain brook.”
Somehow you know this conversation never took place. Although you wonder whether similar bucolic thoughts passed through the minds of the legionnaires guarding Hadrian’s Wall – the northern outpost of the Roman empire – against marauding Scots in the lashing horizontal rain for which northern Britain is so famous. And that this was the point at which the great imperial ambitions of mighty Rome were terminally sapped.
So perhaps there is something to the drizzle theory after all just not in the way I imagined. As the sun sets behind the hill, the sky turns a pale lilac and the twilight fills with the massed chattering of cicadas, I’ll keep working on it.