Britain's peculiar fascination with the weather

The Barbican's Rain Room exhibition is a reminder of how the weather defines our nation’s character.

"When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather". Dr. Johnson noted this in the 18th century and yet it is still unassailably true. Despite Oscar Wilde’s famous riposte, "conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative", Britain remains a country peculiarly fascinated with the weather. This obsession seems quintessentially British, our literature is flooded with references and metaphors; one need only skim through a book of English poetry, or look at a Turner painting. However, there is something rather sentimental about it. As Richard Mabey aptly writes, despite the banality of discussions on the weather, the nice thing is that "we’re all in the weather together", it offers each of us a common narrative. Perhaps we choose this narrative because of a lack of imagination or because of an ingrained ‘stiff upper lip’ and a need for a conversation ‘safety net’. Whatever the reason, it is an ingrained part of our culture, BBC Radio 4 discovered this when they proposed cutting the late-night shipping forecast which provoked an outcry from listeners, most of whom did not actually live near the sea.

Pondering these thoughts and with a mixture of intrigue and bafflement, I headed off to see the Rain Room at the Barbican. The installation has been one of the institution's most successful exhibitions and comes to a close this weekend having opened on 4 October. The installation, created by Random International, seeks to "push people outside their comfort zones" and has certainly created a storm with queues averaging six hours. Once inside the rain room, one is confronted with what appears to be a downpour. However, when you enter as if by magic, the rain does not touch you. The installation is designed to allow viewers to interact and experience is both exciting and contemporary, the space is calming and intriguing and allows individuals to make what they will of it.

The exhibition, for me, most aptly sums up our fascination with weather and suggests that we enjoy the weather, not just as a banal piece of information, for idle chit chat, but as something that defines part of our nation’s rich character.

The Rain Room exhibition at the Barbican closes this weekend


The Rain Room exhibition at the Barbican.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.