Alexandra Harris

From 'The Weather Forecast'

Because the English climate is unstable and unpredictable it is a symbol of Romantic changeability. Roger Fry found this extremely irritating. He complained about the ‘ugly black English weather’ and he sought instead the strong light of southern France for his painting. The artist he most admired, Cézanne, had moved away from the misty uncertainties of the Impressionists and painted Provence as something solid, crystalline, eternal. The artist’s role, as Cézanne and Fry conceive it, is to see through the incidentals of atmosphere, reaching for the unchanging structures beneath. When Fry tried to paint England there was so much weather that it got in the way of any such penetrating vision: ‘all the trees have collected gloomy inky shadows round them and I want clear-cut shapes and colours’, he protested. ‘No one ought to try to be an artist in England.’ But the English eye saw the inky shadows as the dark source from which art might emerge.

The film-makers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Archers) made dark skies the subject of some comic and patriotic rejoicing, suggesting that bad weather is not only life-giving but life-saving. Their 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death begins with a thick black fog rolling in over the South Coast – a fog so thick and black that when a Lancaster Bomber pilot jumps from his burning plane into the clouds the messenger sent from Heaven to escort him to the land of the dead loses sight of him completely. This turns out to be most fortunate for the pilot, Peter Carter, who is, appropriately, also a major contemporary poet. Having fallen several thousand feet to certain death, he wakes up on the beach, alive. The exact weather conditions and timing (2 May 1945, ten past four in the morning) are crucial. Death has been caught out, rained off. ‘I missed you because of your ridiculous English climate’, says the (French) messenger from the other world. By the time Peter has settled into being alive again, the obliging fog has passed, the sun has come out, and England has become a land of glorious Technicolor, as opposed to the dull black-and-white of the efficient, orderly Heaven he has so narrowly escaped. In a film about an individual cunningly flouting the system, fog becomes the benevolent force that confounds rationalism and champions the idiosyncratic. The dead are filed away in Heaven, neatly grouped by era and category; by contrast the fog permits mistakes and obscurities. It is no less than a symbol of imaginative freedom. The weather in Heaven seems always to be the same; far better the surprises of life, and of England.