Letter from London 29th January 2006
The way that we greet one another in various languages and cultures says something about our priorities. “As-Salaam-Alaikum”, for example, is courteous as well as pragmatic. If somebody begins a conversation by wishing me peace that is both charming, and disarming - and it would be churlish of me to respond with anything other than wishing my greeter peace in return. The Chinese are also solicitous in their salute which roughly translates as “Have you eaten rice today?” This reflects the Chinese love of food and (perhaps) the fact that famines over the years have meant that all too many Chinese may not have eaten every day. In Britain we invariably mumble some remark about the weather (when, that is, we cannot avoid looking away in embarrassment). “Turned out nice again” or “Dull old day” are classic greetings as is the Scottish “It’s a bit dreich today”. “Dreich” is a word which conveys a feeling of dullness, dampness and gloom – so the Scots (who can be a trifle dour at times) like it very much. It is also a very handy expression in Scotland as it applies there for around 300 days a year - so you don’t really have to make much of a meteorological judgment most of the time!
Quite why we British are so obsessed by the weather I’ve never understood – most of the time it is fairly unremarkable and there are rarely extremes in any of the seasons. Mind you when it is a few degrees above or below the norm the tabloids will explode with hyperbolic headlines like “The Big Freeze goes on” (translates as “It’s cold”) or “Sweltering London” (“It’s hot”). Margaret Thatcher at the time of the Hong Kong negotiations with China called Britain a “cold and cloudy island” and wondered why the Hong Kong Chinese would want to trade “sunny Hong Kong” to come and live here. In fact this last outpost of the empire had a pretty terrible climate (hot and very humid for much of the year). By comparison, for many of us, the British weather is actually a plus not a minus.
Having lived in some extreme climates in my time I am actually pretty happy with what we have in Britain. In Scotland, it is true, you do need to have a phlegmatic personality to cope - but you will be rewarded if you are patient. On a sunny day in the Highlands there is no more beautiful sight on earth than to climb high and look across the Lochs and Glens. A little further south there are similar sensations to be had in the Lake District which so inspired Wordsworth and other English poets. But remember that Wordsworth also wrote of London that “Earth has not anything to show more fair…” than the view from Westminster bridge. The last few days have been cold but sparklingly clear and in the thin air the sun reflects magically from the surface of the freezing Thames. And spring isn’t too far around the corner and our wonderful seasonal cycle will begin again. Have a nice day!