The weather in London abdicates
I think it was on the day of the Westminster coronation, a sorry stroll through a resolutely unfestive city, that I realised there was no more weather. That reflex topic of British conversation had finally abdicated. Weather had withdrawn the accepted metaphors on which civic and poetic life depend. The ancient bond between king, subjects and sky was dissolved. If our former intimacy with barely perceptible shifts in atmospheric pressure was lost, we were done. Also lost. Divorced from our most ancient sense of self, we had no further business in this alienated metropolitan sprawl. And there could be no functioning ecology under such a dull and unyielding mantle. A clammy and persistent duvet of grey negatives separated us from the revelation of migrating cloud streets.
There was no guidance of conduct left in waiting on sunrise or sunset. Weather was a corporate business. A privatised resource exclusive to subscribers, available as a pre-paid app. An investmentprotected by militarised drones and strategic satellites. Warring nations were invaded now by intrusive weather balloons. Our daily dole of sun and storm was overdescribed and underexperienced. Virtual weather eliminated our affinity of witness with the real thing. Climactic manifestations along the banks of the buried Fleet River, on the day of the televised crowning, were unreadable and unmoving. Weather had stalled somewhere in the greyscale of elective amnesia. Every dawn we endure the same helmet of smoke without causal fire. Denied these ordinary diurnal blessings, ordinary fits and fevers, we choke for breath like marine creatures trapped and thrashing on the wrong evolutionary step.
At the previous coronation, the one from my childhood, when television was just beginning its colonisation of weather prophecy, there was a proper downpour. A rinsing of the streets and carbonised hulks of public buildings. The loyal mob of those who had come through the war: they were proud to be drenched. Grateful to receive a ration of sodden gabardine, neck trickle and leaking shoes, in order to pay their humble respects to the gilded procession. The princes and ex-princes. The dukes and ambassadors and dignitaries of empire. Flanked by the thin red line of cavalry left over from Waterloo and Crimea, from dealing with Boers and native resistors to the omnipotence of the East India Company.
The rain on this Saturday, 6 May 2023, was barely noticed. It didn’t come from the skies or the polluted oceans. It lurked under and around Holborn Viaduct like a cancelled rumour, a ticketless tout. The sky played the heritage game by mimicking the migraine strobe of those primitive television cabinets eavesdropping, like a misty vision in the Magical Speculum or Black Stone of Dr John Dee, on the ritual anointing of Queen Elizabeth II. The historic contract between the citizens of this fading offshore island and the old gods was confirmed in the theatre of the clouds.
‘Light thickens,’ Shakespeare warned in Macbeth, a tragedy embroidered with phobic chants from paranoid brigands and their familiars, those weather-conjuring witches: the shock-haired meteorological performance artists of the Jacobean era. King, queen, court and common servants: they trembled at what could be read from the heavens. But walking, on coronation day, within the bowl of the Thames Valley, was like pushing against liquefied slate. The lid was down. A lowering skein pulsed like the screen of a laptop that refuses to obey but can’t be turned off. Weather, as a royal prerogative, was suspended. It was neither noise nor signal. The oracle of the stars was dumb. Stellar transmissions failed.
London’s Shakespearean heritage of ‘fog and filthy air’, exploited by Dickens as a spectre of heroic resistance in the choked and reeking capital of a 19th-century world empire, has been neutered by conferences of concerned bankers and rebranded politicians held in secure luxury resorts. By dazzling presentations and rafts of unenforceable promises. Apocalyptic threats are streamed as mass entertainment. Doomsday porn is delivered by whispering intermediaries and accompanied by solemn mood music.
The portents for the big day were unfavourable. The planners of the abbreviated royal progress took extreme precautions against the regicide of hand-painted amateur placards and potentially lethal string and ribbons. The lese-majesty of unwashed republicans and climate protestors, their anarchy interwoven, was countered by summary arrest, handcuffs and fourteen hours of cold-turkey custody. No kings, no fossil fuel abominations, no sewage pumped into chalk streams.
The old trade of ‘skying’, as practised by the manufacturing pharmacist and amateur meteorologist Luke Howard, with his meticulous taxonomy of cloud formations over Hackney Marshes, was discontinued. The excitement that drew Goethe, Shelley and Constable towards renewed expectations of prophetic witness was over. The tribe’s faith in watching the skies and waiting for a recurring cycle of stars to announce regime change was revived through the closely observed discriminations of a Quaker man of business. Howard was a walker and a localist. After his famed Essay on the Modification of Clouds, he published The Climate of London. He registered ‘heat island’ effects, temperature climbing under the comforting smog of acceptable pollution: the price of progress.
As I walked down Farringdon Road, nobody lifted their eyes from a puddled pavement. You could say that it was raining, but that would be too active a description. The morning snivelled. It dripped and sneezed without cause or consequence. Groups of sodden tourists scuttled, poking at fist screens, aware that something important was happening somewhere else. At the time of the first Elizabeth, the pearl-encrusted Virgin Queen, and of her Scottish successor, popular theatres along the banks of the river were open to the risk of the skies. Weather, both metaphor and experience, was alert to ‘the multiplying villainies of nature’. It is not confirmed that the Globe Theatre burned down in 1613, during a performance of All is True, as a consequence of a lightning strike. But it should have been. And the play in question should have been King Lear, when royal peevishness matured into madness, and stage-effect tempests played along. ‘Who’s here beside foul weather?’ Kings knew that it was their duty to contend with ‘the fretful elements’.
Psychic storms, incubated in the corridors and private apartments of palaces, rage on the heath. Climate has its seasons and its humours. At the hour of the revamped coronation ceremony, conducted by priests of all persuasions, light was rationed: it was limited to a sanctioned set in Westminster Abbey. Banished ratepayers and flag-draped pensioners, outside the great stone tent, the boulevards of privilege and permitted subservience, crabbed aimlessly through unpoliced streets where they relied on their phones for guiding beams of illumination. They slithered downhill, like an overflow of the urban poor scraping together a few coins to purchase a dole of mortgaged light from a fixed meter. In the vaulted set of the great abbey, huge lamps and snaking cables provided sufficient dazzle to confirm the moment when the crown settled like a mid-Atlantic depression over the wrinkled brow of the new monarch.
For this specific day, this suspended season, weather had stalled. Weather was linked to the catastrophic financial markets. Screens, a blizzard of crashing statistics, were blank. The career meteorological performers no longer dealt in forecasts, they busked and twinkled. They danced against perky graphics. They made light of happenstance. They offered stand-up routines in questionable outfits. And while they rambled across a map they couldn’t see, viewers debated fashion choices. The weather slot was the perfect filler. It was a special kind of tedium, expanding to take over the entire doom-laden news cycle. The agitated space between the latest ministerial malfunction and the brave marathon walker. Weather was dead currency. Forecasting capitulated with the era of Michael Fish, his messianic hair, his tragic suit, and that infamous misreading of the Great Storm of October 1987. The precise moment when the deregulation of financial markets released a forest-destroying hurricane into the air, above and beyond the City of London. Our dome of pollution was already in place, delineated by the first birthday of the M25, an orbital motorway opened by Margaret Thatcher. Our populist Gloriana rode a wave of permissions. She had already handbagged any nonsense about independent localities and microclimates, along with the Greater London Council. But the weather of extreme conviction channelled Lear and unstitched her.
The anomaly of this suspension, the smothering of sun and moon and stars, was a blatant projection from the state of things: strikes, held trains, the sick and dying stacked in queues of waiting ambulances. An anti-culture of prevarication and postponement. Now weather itself seemed to be postponed. Held back. In reserve. As I paused on Blackfriars Bridge, twisting to locate the precise spot at which Roberto Calvi, the Vatican banker and bagman, had been left hanging, I noticed a statue of Victoria; a dumpy pillowcase figure crafted by Charles Bell Birch, designer of the Temple Bar griffin. She was trying, with admirable fortitude, to keep the crown on her head against a sirocco of competing vehicles heading for the Embankment. Dwarfed in a forest of construction cranes and the collateral damage of Super Sewer excavations, Vicky clutched an orb in her hand, symbol of her world empire. She gripped it hard, this pomander against the mephitic reek of traffic and tunnels.
Driven indoors by the dull persistence of suppurating skies, I photographed on a muted café television the royal couple on the Buck House balcony. The robes made them look like music-hall veterans blagging a pantomime. Heavy paint and heavier wrinkles. Exhaustion endured. Grumbling bellies. Necks resisting an unbecoming weight of jewels and crimson velvet. Shamanic decorations of bees and beetles. And capes of stoat pelts. The king and queen had just realised that those attack helicopters spidering out of the mist could be ferrying a posse of special forces republicans down the Mall for a televised coup. A compliant tabloid spook with long-lens camera lurked behind the shrunken shoulders of the royal pair, scanning the converging crowd for signs of disloyalty. The choppers thudded and thumped, lost in the gloom. Red, white and blue contrails of low-flying jets were superimposed, in a cruel dissolve, across the creased features of Mr and Mrs Windsor. And I remembered how news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II carried with it a biblical display of double rainbows: graphic Pre-Raphaelite symbolism. Rainbows over castle and solemn drumbeat procession. Bent light teased by water droplets accompanying every stage of the slow-drip release of news. Weather befitting the end of something. The backdrop of divine promise.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network. In 1990 Iain Sinclair wrote a piece for the LRB on the weather and the climate under the headline ‘Bad News’. It was the first time the phrase ‘climate change’ appeared in the paper.