Bless the Weather by David Chandler
By David Chandler
Jul 13, 2022
Writer David Chandler ruminates on dressing for the weather in an unpredictable climate, and recalls a memorably mercurial walk on the Isle of Wight.
Photography by Jem Southam.
In Britain, our feelings about the weather have long been shaped by a sense of profound mistrust. It is an inherited condition, borne from generations of spoiled summer weekends, of cold and cloudy holidays and rained-on, tear-stained weddings. We have all become accustomed to the defining events of our lives taking place in a fine drizzle; if, that is, they aren’t abandoned altogether. But, as a result of this, and helped by the ironic distance we all learn to take up in relation to our own experiences, we share a kind of camaraderie and solidarity about these lost or spoiled times. They have become part of our national narrative and our collective memory. In fact, part of being British is learning to live within a climate of unpredictability: not only how to factor the possibility of disappointment into our plans, but to actively expect something to go wrong and then to embrace and transcend it. Just as apprehension about the weather is part of our DNA, so is celebrating how we once turned that rainy day together into something joyful, how we triumphed over adversity, and how for that brief and less than perfect moment we found each other again and remembered how to revel in our common humanity.
But now, as true aficionados of the outdoor life are so fond of saying, there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing. Since moving to the south west of England about ten years ago I have, reluctantly, begun to agree. For me each day begins with walking our dog for about an hour or so, out over fields, through woods and down narrow hedge-lined lanes. This is a strict routine and happens without fail in all possible weathers, and over time I have learned that keeping dry, being warm or cool, staying protected from the biting wind or shaded from the blazing sun are the only realistic criteria for deciding what to wear – comfort in all these situations being paramount. And yet, not being one of those true aficionados, I still feel a slight sense of resistance to the purely functional, head-to-toe weatherproof uniform that, certainly in these winter months, I now pull on every day. Although in general I am a big fan of utility, there is something dull and predictable about always being so well prepared. It’s like the now ubiquitous leisure kit that has accompanied the growth of a more gung-ho, extreme sports version of outdoor life; am I the only one who feels mildly oppressed by all those physically punishing outdoor regimes with their vaguely militaristic second skins of techno-fabric? At the same time, and perhaps with just a hint of nostalgia, I find myself mourning the loss of our more contingent relationships with the changeable weather in this country, when all we had to protect ourselves were gabardine raincoats and woollen balaclavas.
Burton Bradstock from Lyme Bay, 1999
Of course, I am partly mourning the passing of time itself here, and the gradual fading of fond memories. But there is also a wider feeling that what replaces those felt qualities, the very grain of the past, is almost inevitably more generic and more soulless; the condition of world reformed by a rapacious global economy. While out walking the dog, I regularly stop to pass the time of day with an elderly man – he seems to be in his late seventies, though maybe older – who is always friendly and willing to talk. He is broad and tall but has a very gentle manner and appears in rude health. His eyes sparkle with a keen intelligence as he speaks. Throughout the autumn and winter months this man always wears the same dark double-breasted greatcoat, which extends well below the knee and has, I imagine, given him years of good service. His long-ish white hair hangs beneath a cherry red knitted hat, and on his feet are always a pair of large leather boots that, over time and many miles of keeping a keen pace, have moulded to the shape of his feet. In the summer, this outfit is exchanged for a broad-brimmed straw hat, an old pair of baggy white linen trousers and, just occasionally, a slightly frayed but still elegant striped seersucker blazer. There is no seasonal variation in his footwear. While his sartorial preferences (and I have a strong sense they are preferences) may be eccentric – that coat must weigh a ton when it gets wet – every time I see this survivor from the world before Gore-Tex it lifts my spirits. My feeling is that the more we are encouraged to smooth out all the creases in our lives, the more we plough on in our high-spec clothing refusing to acknowledge bad weather, the more we lose some of the awkwardness and character, the wilful unpreparedness, that gives living some of its added colour and texture. I think it’s something to do with that feeling of getting caught in heavy rain, of being soaked to the skin, of running for shelter, of getting home and out of those dripping clothes, and then of staring back at the rain through the window of a warm room.
I think it is good to remember that our volatile weather is not just an elemental challenge, something to be physically confronted and overcome amid all the energetic striving for the next level. The weather is also a barometer of our states of mind, the regulator and the mirror of our national mood swings. Just as a crisp sunny day heavy with the scents of spring is a source of revitalisation and hope, so the gradual massing of steel-grey clouds always brings with it a sense of foreboding. Like our ancestors, we still look to the skies for direction and guidance, for signs of reassurance or imminent threat. And like them, we still understand that the weather is a messenger of universal forces far beyond our control, and perhaps the destructive harbinger of a tragically self-inflicted destiny. But, meanwhile, it remains the case that our changing weather is also an immense reservoir of visual pleasure and inspiration. While many artists have left this country seeking better light and greater atmospheric consistency, for others there cannot be too much weather. Why work in a place where each day, each week and month is much the same as the last? Far better a country that is full of surprises, where occluded vision is just as interesting as clarity, where the sun is an hallucination, and where spectres might lurk in the gloom. Rather than a figment of the imagination our bad weather is a constant source of mystery.
Rye Harbour, 1999
All of this reminds me of an uncanny experience I had some years ago during a short holiday on the Isle of Wight. One of those fleeting instances in life when the ordinary and the extraordinary are intertwined in a way that is as haunting as it is unforgettable.
On this particular day, my partner and I were ambling across a broad, grassy cliff-top plateau, which seemed to stretch for miles along a particularly beautiful section of the island’s southern coast. It wasn’t a sunny day but it was extremely bright and fresh; one of those white-light days when it feels good to be out enjoying the open air. Although we felt pleasantly alone, as we walked we would occasionally pass families having picnics spread across blankets, with children peeling off, chasing each other and tumbling about, woozy in their sense of space and freedom. Here and there other games were breaking out: a group of teenagers chasing a football, an impromptu game of rounders collapsing into laughter. While elsewhere people were just sitting and staring out to sea, leaning back on their arms and learning how to relax.
Then, as we walked further, stopping ourselves from time to time to take in the view and enjoy the breeze that blew seagulls into odd mechanical arcs of flight above our heads, the brightness began to fade, the air became heavier and the white clouds more densely packed across the lowering sky. And then the mist came down. At first there were blown patches, like passing skeins of smoke from a fire somewhere ahead. But as the mist thickened so the clear day disappeared into a haze: the view out to sea was gone and our sense of space quickly compressed, visibility shrinking to a hundred yards, then fifty, then twenty. It was gloomy and predictable; that same old British stoicism seeping back to stave off the disappointment of another perfect day cut short. But it was also oddly exciting, in the way that such abrupt and extreme changes of weather can be, as though we had been transported to another place altogether, and into another time. From being light-headed in the wide-openness all around us, the atmosphere had shifted; our day had drawn in, and the preoccupations of vision had begun to be replaced by the more internal stirrings of the imagination.
There was still stubbly grass underfoot, but with the cliffs somewhere off to our left now invisible we could have been anywhere. So, in order to reinstate our bearings, we moved, a little nervously, closer to where we thought the cliff edge should be. It was then that we heard, very faintly at first, the sound of voices calling or chattering, the noise rising and falling on the breezy air. The sound grew more distinct as we approach the cliff edge, which, as it came into view, appeared strangely as a kind of step down onto a flat, pure white sea of mist laying only a few yards below and which extended away from us into a vague nothingness. Rising out of this indeterminate space, as we could now clearly hear, were the sounds of children playing, still peaking and dipping, louder and then more quietly rolling on the wind. The voices seemed too close, and then far away, as if they were moving out of range.
I had always found the disembodied sound of children’s voices tinged with sadness. A school playground hidden from view, a weekend park in full swing somewhere in the distance: hearing them is superficially charming and reassuring but then oddly unnerving too. To some degree this is because the sound appears to be drifting our way from the past, and from a place that is partly our own childhood, that still powerful emotional lining of our memory. But standing here on the cliff edge staring into what now seemed like an abyss, the calls and cries of children stopped us in our tracks; the eerie sound tapping into some deep vein of feeling that held us rigid. We rationalised that there must be a park or fairground somewhere below, maybe a hundred feet or so down by the seashore, but that idea could not break the spell of this real, ghostly presence. It was a fierce wrenching out of nowhere, an overwhelming sensation of loss. The children of the mist were everything that had been and would never be again. Their voices happily and obliviously lost to life. After a few minutes, we turned away from this edge, unsettled and dumbstruck by the experience and by the strange spatial illusions that lingered as we walked unsteadily inland and back into the gradually clearing weather.
David Chandler is a British writer, editor, and curator, specialising in photography. He has worked with the National Portrait Gallery, the Photographers' Gallery, and the Institute of Visual Arts. From 2010 to 2018 he was a Professor of the Photography Department at Plymouth University.
Part of this short essay was originally published in the artist Susan Trangmar’s book, A Place in Time (Photoworks, 2008).