Books

Weatherland by Alexandra Harris

Oh 2016, I am greatly enjoying the books you send my way.

Weatherland was sent to me for review by the good folks at Thames & Hudson. It is basically the most English book ever written: charting the history of a country’s art and literature through its weather.

Art and literature are two areas I particularly love reading about. Especially when set in a historical context and given some kind of interesting slant, I find that creative endeavours in which people produce fictional works can provide a sort of alternate pair of spectacles. As if, by looking at the stories people create through their artworks, we can see more about the factual surroundings of the time as well.

The Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston: “To Literature, Arts and Sciences”
The Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston: “To Literature, Arts and Sciences”

About twenty pages into Weatherland, I wrote possibly the highest piece of praise that could be given to a book that concerns nature.

This book reads like David Attenborough is narrating it, I wrote in my diary, and it’s true.

Weatherland by Alexandra HarrisIt has that sort of calm, collected yet passionate Englishness running through its chapters – it conjures up images of the writer sitting in a crumbling cottage while a particularly potent storm rages outside, scratching notes upon notes upon notes about the weather and its ways. Surrounded by huge piles of old books that smell just right, and musty walls that don’t. Maybe a candle, or a cat.

I have no idea if that’s how Alexandra Harris wrote her book, but that’s what it sounded like to me. She makes the heroines of classical fiction speak through her pages; she makes paintings come to life and tell their stories, often through the parts that are in the background: skies, weather backdrops, the sun peeking through the trees.

Weatherlands is a book that will subsequently make you look twice at everything.

There are some brilliant words scattered throughout as well. I am a collector of words – I have a special notebook dedicated to my favourite ones, and there were several added during the course of this book.

winterbourne (n): a stream which rises when the water-table is high in winter and recedes in summer

tesserae (n pl): small blocks of tile or other materials used to build mosaics

odoriferous (adj): giving off a strong and generally unpleasant smell

equipoise (n): a balance of forces or interests

pteridomania (n): ‘fern craze’ which swept through Victorian Britain

Oh, I could go on, but I won’t. You get the picture. And when you read the book for yourself – which you definitely should – I’m sure you’ll find some wonderful words there too.

The book is broken down into weather variations, and then into chapters focusing on artists’ impressions of the same. I particularly enjoyed parts VII & VIII, which focused largely on the sky and on rain. I like the sky, as my picture-poem of the same name suggests.

Some of my favourite quotes include the following.

We come to understand places through the marks the wind has made on them - Weatherland by Alexandra Harris

“We come to understand places through the marks the wind has made on them.”

“A diligent student of obscurity” – another epitaph candidate.

“Storage used to be heavy: there were boxes and filing cabinets. Now our stored information is ethereal. It is at once everywhere and nowhere, though we imagine that it is up in the sky because that is where our gods have traditionally belonged.”

This is the sort of thing poets are supposed to do - they rejoice in storms, they forget their hats - Weatherland by Alexandra Harris

“This is the sort of thing poets are supposed to do: they rejoice in storms, they forget their hats.”

By this point you’ve probably realised that I’m throwing my wholehearted recommendation behind this book. If you have any interest in history, art, literature, poetry, philosophy or sociology, or if you’ve ever had a lengthy conversation about the weather (that’ll be most of England, then), you must read it.

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