Monday, November 17, 2003

A November Day in England 

Part I

“Though our height was only 14,000 feet, wet snow was falling heavily and the climate had degenerated into a rawness similar to that of a November day in England. For the first time on the expedition we felt really chilly. Up high we had experienced occasional numbness and had narrowly escaped frostbite on two or three occasions, but though one might numb, one did not shiver. In order to experience a really unpleasant form of cold, it in unnecessary to leave Great Britain”.
– F S Smythe, “The Kanchenjunga Adventure” 1946.

London on a damp, grey November morning. I’m standing outside tucked into what little shelter from the drizzle is afforded by the building above, waiting for the company shuttle bus to another office across London, jotting down whatever comes to mind.

It had been such a promising start. The glorious red sunrise had me reaching for my camera, only to find no film in it. I should have been warned though – the early weather-watchers who coined the adage “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning” knew a thing or two. Now, mid-morning, the clouds have spread, merging together into overcast, shutting out the sun that earlier had lent them such colour; now it’s just cold, grey, damp – a typical November in London in other words.

A few hardy souls brave the chill on the open top of a London double-decker sight-seeing bus. You can get very cold sitting motionless as the damp air discovers and attacks all the weak spots of the best defences – gaps at ankles, gaps at the back of the neck, gaps between buttons, even the gaps in the weave of fabric – and works its way ever further into your bones. As Frank Smythe knew, that kind of cold defies the thermometer.

Who’d be a tourist on a November day in London?

Part II

It’s now raining steadily and the sky has darkened to the extent that it feels like dusk even though late lunchers are still clinging to the tail-end of lunch time. Headlamps of passing cars provide sufficient light noticeably to brighten the afternoon; buses pass, their interiors, although brightly lit, all but invisible behind the mist of condensation on the inside of the windows from dozens of wet, steaming coats. The novelty of such deep mid-day gloom gives the day a perverse attraction – dark grey is at least a change from mid grey.

Louis Armstrong is playing on the radio in this bus singing what a wonderful world it is. Incongruous? Strangely, it seems quite fitting. The song brings a smile to my face; I’m sitting comfortably on a warm, dry bus, with a few minutes to scribble down thoughts without any feelings of guilt that I should be doing something else. The world’s not such a bad old place.

How many times have I greeted someone on a day like this with the words “What a miserable day!” or some such. Odd, really. Or at any rate, peculiarly British. There’s no more misery (albeit no less either) than on any other day. On the worldwide misery stakes, the status quo reigns. I guess the words are meant as an expression of solidarity – recognition that I share the effect of the weather with you, whatever other differences we may have. A shared adversity in the face of a common foe. But the more I think about it, the more it seems a thoroughly perverse form of greeting. To say, cheerfully, “What a crap day”. What are people supposed to believe? The words, or some inexplicit notion of cameraderie? Am I spreading gloom or bonhomie?

I think I’d rather stop sending mixed messages in future.

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