Samuel Johnson wrote that “When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather.” The good doctor wrote that in 1758, long before the conversation of Englishmen was informed by the hyperbolic outrage of London’s present tabloids. Just lately it seems he might amend his phrasing to “their only talk.”
The British are in a weather frenzy. Snow has shut down Heathrow Airport essentially for five days. Other airports are stuttering, trains are barely operating, roads impassible. The newspapers – and not just the tabloids – accuse the airports authority of dreadful failings, while others curse an unprepared government and the swinging temperatures caused by global warming.
What we writers ought to focus on is the opportunity for unleashing our creativity presented by such extreme conditions.
A writer should seek out extremes. Within himself, of course. But how to uncover those extremes of emotion? External extremes impinge on what goes on in your mind and heart, so that in the end they promote an understanding of the deepest feelings. And it’s deep feeling that makes a novel memorable, more than swish style and zippy plot.
I realized this during the Palestinian intifada. Not because of the extreme weather – though the battles I saw fought out in a rainy January in the West Bank or a sweltering July in Gaza were unrestrained – but rather because I was able to witness people in extreme situations. Surrounded by immoderate violence I saw the worst and best of people. In turn, that evoked my understanding of the best and worst in me.
I came to think of this experience in terms of color. If your everyday life is pretty good, let’s call it green. You get used to seeing green and, even when you change location, you prefer something in a similar shade of green. Then one day there’s a burst of scarlet, and then comes orange, and just as you wonder what that’s all about, your vision is splashed with turquoise. Suddenly the green seems different.
John Lennon wrote that “When the rain falls, they run and hide their heads. They might as well be dead.” He was right: Rain or shine, “The weather’s fine.” If you’re in tune with your surroundings, accepting of them, you can feel your own responses on a deeper level.
As always, newspapers and cable news cast things in a superficial unthinking way. Thus I read that today thousands of Britons are “stranded in Paris,” unable to return to the UK by air or by train. Some of those newspaper editors ought to be stranded in the middle of a desert or on a lonely island and forced to stare at their stupid copy. Strand me in Paris any time you like.