Ian Clayton column - Weather or not

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan

It was Bob Dylan on the album Bringing It All Back Home who wrote: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

He was of course urging young folk to make their own decisions. In the same song he wrote the more impressionistic line: “Don’t follow leaders and watch your parking meters.” My guess is he meant don’t take anything at face value and find your own influences.

My old mate Arnold Millard used to take me to one side every now and again and advise me on everything from how to play fives and threes (this usually involved cheating, so we won’t go in to that) to how to progress on television. His advice usually involved two sayings: one was “play your natural game”, which is self explanatory; and “don’t let them steal your thunder”.

The latter saying is a nice one, isn’t it? A lot of people still use it to mean don’t let others take the credit for a good idea you have come up with. It’s also one of those sayings we take for granted without really knowing its origin.

Just recently I read the story of the now-forgotten English playwright John Dennis (1657–1734) and how he coined that lovely phrase in a fit of pique. It turns out John Dennis was a not a very successful playwright and most of his plays closed after being savaged by critics, but he did invent a special effect that is still in use in theatres today. He took a large wooden bowl, filled it with lead shot and whenever a play called for a thunderstorm, a man at the side of the stage would roll the bowl to create a distinctive sound.

Once, when Dennis was at a production of Macbeth, he heard the distinctive sound of his invention and uttered the immortal words: “The rascals use me, they will not run my plays but they steal my thunder.” It’s ironic, then, that though the writer is long forgotten, his invention and his saying are still going strong after almost three centuries.

All of this got me thinking about other weather-based sayings. Do you ever say “as pure as driven snow”? If you do you’re quoting Shakespeare: in fact with many sayings that rely on simile or metaphor, you are invariably quoting Shakespeare. Snow driven into drifts is usually pure to look at because there are no footprints in it and whiteness has long been associated with purity, but we had to wait until Shakespeare and Macbeth to see it written down.

In that famous play he wrote: “Black Macbeth will seem as pure as snow.” My favourite snow saying comes from much later. Mae West in her vaudeville show would give a knowing wink and say: “I used to be Snow White, but then I drifted.”

Have you ever taken umbrage? If you have, it literally means you have taken yourself off into the darkness of the shade of a tree. The word umbrage has its root in the Latin umbra, meaning shadows or shade, and it’s also the root of the word umbrella. Taking umbrage these days means going off to ponder your gloomy thoughts, so you can see how sitting alone in the shade would connect to that.

Quite often when we do take umbrage, it can be over something or nothing, or a storm in a teacup, meaning a big to-do over nothing much. This phrase appears all over the world in every culture. The Hungarians call it a tempest in a pot, the Dutch say a storm in a glass of water and the Americans say a tempest in a teapot – and knowing the history of Americans and tea you might see why.

To find the beginnings of this phrase we have to travel back to the writings of Cicero in the years BC. He said “stirring up billows in a ladle”, which is a lovely image. Cicero, as every scholar who swotted over Latin at school will tell you, was the greatest of all Roman speech makers.

My granny had a whole thesaurus of sayings to do with rain. If she put her hand out of the door to test for it, she’d say: “Put thi cap on, it’s only spitting” or “wait while it bates a bit, it’s teeming” but her best one was: “It’s coming down like stair rods,” a lovely image.

Strange bedfellows, but between them my granny, Arnold Millard and Cicero taught me quite a lot.