We need to talk about the weather. It’s part of my DNA: within one of my chromosomes that have also determined a reticence to introduce myself to strangers and a fondness for orderly queues linger a few cells dedicated to obsessing about the weather. I think they may be GB cells. They surfaced when I was relatively young and manifested themselves in an early career goal to be a weatherman. A rough outline of the southwest of England was etched on a sheet of A4 and stuck on the inside of my cupboard door. Other bits of paper were cut up and made into various symbols for sun, cloud, thunder, snow and rain, to be stuck on the map with blu-tac. The rain symbols tended to get worn out the quickest.
The association with rain makes it natural for me to see the umbrella as a very British thing, whether jauntily swinging along with pinstripes and bowler hats, colourfully huddled together overlooking a covered up centre court, or propelling erstwhile nannies across the streets of London to shove spoonfuls of sugar down children’s throats. However a quick bit of research (i.e. scanning Wikipedia and not really reading much of it) suggests the brolly goes back to ancient empires but – get this – it was used to shade Egyptian cats or something from the fiery orb of the angry celestial sun god (like I say, I didn’t really read much of it). Shade from the sun? In the UK? Even Mary Poppins made more purposeful use of an umbrella than that!
I have also vaguely potentially read somewhere that the Eskimos have fifty different words for snow; in the UK a similar linguistic phenomenon exists for wet stuff from the sky. So on any one day across the British Isles it could be raining, drizzling, mizzling, spitting, chucking it down, pouring, precipitating, suffering deluges, downpours, cloudbursts and sheets of rain, and, fantastically, raining cats and dogs. Which is all a bit Shih Tzu. Meanwhile in France it just pleuts and pleuts.
The crazy thing with all of this watery bombardment is that the umbrella is frequently useless, turned inside out by the howling gales kindly delivered by Atlantic storms. There is no more iconic sight than a mangled umbrella dumped despairingly into a bin on a railway station platform. Because you have been there yourself, you can easily picture the struggle that befell its former owner and the sodden mess in which he or she arrived at work, uncomfortably damp for the rest of the day. Hence the alternative or additional and very fashionable cagoule…the tasteful pack-a-mac, which I am pleased to discover is of British origin .
Something else distinctly British is a summer trip to the seaside for a picnic in the car. Outside the sea and sky are leaden and the mid teens temperature is quelled by a cooling hurricane and squalls of rain. Inside, cheese and cucumber sandwiches are squashed and soggy while the windows are steaming up. Clothes are sticking to bodies and bodies are sticking to other bodies wedged in like slightly more animated sardines. All the time pack-a-macs are at the ready for when the rain becomes slightly less heavy and a scramble along the promenade to the dilapidated pier can be braved.
The good thing from familiarity is that Britain is generally prepared for rain and carries on carrying on regardless. There are always things to do for ‘rainy days’ such as popping out for tea and cake, or sheltering in the dark protective womb of a medieval tavern, warmed by warm ale. There are amusements and fudge making demonstrations and bric-a-brac sales in the village hall, with more tea and cake thrown in. There are theme parks and zoos, where even the monkeys have the good sense to seek shelter while humans negotiate driving rain and wade through puddles to come and look at them .
By contrast of course Australia has this sunny image of Lara Bingle on a Whitsunday Beach sounding dumb and asking you where the bloody hell you are . It would surprise some people that it does actually rain in Australia, a fact not usually depicted in adverts for that local beer that everyone drinks…what is it…Fosters or something. Neither, unfortunately, does a test match get washed out. Instead, sun-baked pitches form chasms that swallow English batsmen whole, and the only rain is that of plaudits lauded by the partisan commentary towards Mitchell bloody Johnson.
Still, there is a tendency to assume that when it comes to the weather, she’ll be right. Plans can be made for weeks in advance with the assumption that all is going to be dry and sunny. Wet weather contingency plans rarely feature and, then, if it does rain or even just a few grey clouds appear, whole events are cancelled and people shelter in their suburban homes drinking Fosters and watching Lara Bingle be Lara Bingle. I just think, when it comes to a little bit of rain, Australians are…well how to put this delicately…a bit soft, like Mitchell bloody Johnson before he had that fearsome moustache and bowled a few lucky long hops that got wickets.
I can of course include myself in this catch all generalisation of Australians. I too have become accustomed to assuming that days will be dry, which makes it even more frustrating when rain appears. Summer weekends down the coast can be grey and cool and interspersed with rain, which at least makes for a nice car picnic. Sydney can live for weeks with easterlies blowing of the ocean and dumping moisture in endless waves. And in Darwin, well, in Darwin they have a whole season dedicated to rain: the wet…
My one and only visit to Darwin came in February. February: the peak of a hot Aussie summer, when even locals are getting bored of barbecue prawns and one day cricket. But while most of the country basks in a self-satisfied glow, up in the north it is the time when most people in Darwin, if they weren’t already, go mad. The ‘wet’ is a typically Australian to-the-point description of the summer weather in the tropics, a few months shrouded in monsoonal lows and the occasional cyclone. It delivers warm, humid rain, a climate for steamed up glasses and camera lenses and consistent dampness that never goes away. It seems to me, quite horrid.
Holed up in a hotel room it appears as though the rain never eases, never stops for the briefest of interludes. There is no waiting for it to pass and so you have to embrace the wet, taking a tokenistic umbrella which will make very little difference to how damp you actually become. Leaving the sanctum of air-conditioning the humidity is instantly sapping, the pavements and roads and gutters a sheen of water, a danger zone for human aquaplaning and thong blow outs and hidden crocs. But you still push on for an ice cream regardless.
Out of Darwin the landscape is transformed by the season and it seems ninety nine percent of the haphazard interior road network is under water. In Litchfield National Park a bitumen road somehow survives above fields of sodden brown, transporting you to waterfalls that roar like a space shuttle during lift off. Hiking requires some wading – the water is warm and only mildly tumultuous where winter paths usually meander. Goodness only knows what sort of things are in there with you, but there is enough ground above water to stop and observe and inch your way closer to pools that would be idyllic for swimming if there wasn’t ten billion gigalitres of water plummeting off a cliff and directly into them.
Elsewhere, Kakadu National Park is one of the most well-known and iconic preserves in Australia, encapsulating a blend of tropical jungle, vast wetlands and rugged rocky outcrops daubed with ancient art. Here again much is under water and many roads are closed off until at least June. A few lesser sights and vistas remain accessible and it even seems to stay dry for a bit too. Walking among the landscape feels a little less soggy and it is easier to appreciate the wonderful composition of vivid green long grasses, contorted trees, and rocky outcrops. Even the waterholes are calmer and more inviting, save for the signs that say something along the lines of ‘whilst we have done our best to clear this area of crocodiles there can be no guarantee that a six metre monster called George has not moved into the area and is looking forward to tasting foolish tourist flesh.’
Despite what turns out here to be a drier interlude it remains handy to keep an umbrella at hand. The rain is sure to return . Not only will the umbrella help with this imminent rainfall but, in conjunction with a fetching cagoule, it can maintain a clear British connection and sense of identity in an alien, slightly hostile environment. Plus should George the six metre croc appear, the cagoule can be thrown over his thrashing jaws and his eyes can be poked with the umbrella’s pointy end. And then of course, even if that fails (which I doubt), there is chance of a Mary Poppins style escape over the floods and far away to a world of diabetic, tooth-decayed children. Back, of course, to the umbrella’s natural home: Great Britain.
 This could be where the theory of evolution goes awry.
 Perhaps more evidence of evolution gone awry.
 Unless it happens to be one random day in the middle of the year when the big tap is turned off and the ‘dry’ commences…which is all a bit weird
Another great day to be beside the seaside: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3X4chzObTFY
Way to get around: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BHoDW9f7vY
NT tourism: http://www.travelnt.com/