Ben Fogle on his new book and why it’s an interesting time to be English
PUBLISHED: 12:27 15 January 2018 | UPDATED: 12:27 15 January 2018
Television presenter and adventurer Ben Fogle’s latest book examines the strengths and foibles of the English national character. He tells Jenny Mark-Bell about childhood Christmases in Arundel, and presents an extract from English: A Story of Marmite, Queuing and Weather
The very picture of affable Englishness himself, television presenter and adventurer Ben Fogle has taken our national identity as the starting point for his latest book English: a Story of Marmite, Queuing and Weather. Ben, who grew up in West Sussex and whose parents still have a home here, describes the English as “a stiff-upper-lipped nation of reserved extroverts. We are a living contradiction: a nation who supports the underdog and doesn’t like to brag but also bats way above its weight.”
When Sussex Life catches up with him, he is travelling: Cambodia, India, the Himalayas and finally washing up in Cornwall. Such globetrotting is how he has made his career, and he is used to it – he says he wrote the book “on planes, trains and automobiles”.
And for this book, some distance from the subject was advantageous: “I think we exaggerate our roots and national traits when we are overseas. In many ways it is easier to write a reflective book on Englishness from the Andes of South America than it is on the shores of the Thames. Sometimes it is easier to step back from a subject for more clarity.”
The result is an engaging, exploratory and light read, taking in some of the country’s noteworthy idiosyncrasies, from cheese-rolling to the shipping forecast. He’s a likeable author and well-suited to the subject – he says: “Having written books on Labradors and Land Rovers, I wanted to write another quintessential book on a British theme. Post-Brexit and Scottish Referendum, it struck me as an interesting time to be English.”
Ben, his wife Marina and their children visit his parents in West Sussex several times a year and he says he has “such fond memories”, especially of Christmas in Sussex: “I spent most of my childhood Christmases at my parents’ house in Arundel, surrounded by lots of dogs and animals and taking bracing walks along Climping beach.”
The following is an extract from English: A Story of Marmite, Queuing and Weather
There are several features that make the English weather what it is, changeable and famously unpredictable. As part of the United Kingdom, England lies between latitudes 50 and 56 degrees north. An island country, it sits on the western seaboard of the continent of Europe, surrounded by sea.
The English live at a point where competing air masses meet, creating atmospheric instability and unsettled weather. In The Teatime Islands, my first book, I described England/Britain from the perspective of a faraway outpost as “this small rainy island in Western Europe”.
On the other side of the country, our geographical position on the edge of the Atlantic places us at the end of a storm track, a relatively narrow area of ocean down which storms travel, driven by the prevailing winds. As the warm and cold air fly towards and over each other, the earth’s rotation creates cyclones and the UK bears the tail end of them.
What makes our climate so mild is the Gulf Stream, which raises the temperature in the UK by up to 5°C in winter. It also adds moisture to the atmosphere, which makes it much harder to predict the weather as it adds to the number of variables that need to be forecast.
These variables mean vastly unpredictable weather. I can remember both snow at Easter and also such heat that the chocolate eggs were melting. November can be hotter than June, and winter often doesn’t arrive until February. It’s all topsy-turvy, and that is what we love to talk about.
The first time I met the Queen (apologies for the humble-brag there – very unEnglish, maybe it’s the Canadian part of me coming out), it was at Windsor Castle. It was December and I was, quite honestly, a little nervous. She had gathered the great and the good from the world of rural and agricultural life to celebrate the countryside.
“What am I going to talk to her about?” I worried as I made my way to Windsor. There were so many things I could tell her, about the places I had been and the adventures I had experienced. I would tell her about Antarctica, and of the time I met a tribe in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Perhaps I would recall meeting the Prince Philip Island cult, or the time I met some of her Labradors.
“It’s terribly cold, Ma’am, isn’t it?” I smiled as I shook her gloved hand.
“Warmer than last December. Though we could do with a little rain,” she replied. We both nodded, and she headed off to chat to the next guest.
And that just about sums it up. My first opportunity to chat to Her Majesty, and I talked about the weather.
Visitors from abroad are thoroughly bemused by the English fixation with the weather – because the only extreme aspect of our weather is its changeability.
And this leads on to another point about our relationship with our weather: our propensity to complain about it. This is at odds with the Blitz-like spirit of ‘mustn’t grumble’, but we do. Is there such a thing as ideal weather for the English?
It’s true that the English always hope for a White Christmas or a Summer Scorcher, and worry about a Bank Holiday Wash-Out or a Big Freeze. But the obsession is not just with the big picture; it is about the minutiae of each day’s conditions.
We secretly like the fact that our weather continually takes us by surprise, often several times in the course of one day. The changeability of the weather has been a source of marvel, anxiety and unfailing interest since the year dot. In 1758 Samuel Johnson wrote an entire essay entitled Discourses on the Weather. “It is commonly observed,” he pointed out, “that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm…”
Despite this attention to every nuance of different types of inclement weather, the English always seem to be endearingly ill-prepared for a change in conditions. There is an almost annual fuss about why the gritters haven’t treated the roads before icy conditions strike. Who has a can of de-icer to hand on the first few days it’s forecast to freeze? And who is ever dressed appropriately for weather different from that seen from the window first thing in the morning? We are as addicted to weather-watching as we might be to a long-running soap opera, only in this case the drama comes from being caught out by a sudden shower or ambushed by a freak hailstorm.
We owe so much to unpredictability and variety. Would Turner, perhaps the greatest English artist, be so celebrated as a painter of light and atmospheric effects if he lived in a country without so much fog, light rain, storms and volatile cloud formations? Would the Glastonbury festival be the renowned event it is without the mud and the fashionable way with wellies? The iconic cover of the Beatles’ 1969 Abbey Road album – with Paul, John, Ringo and George filing across a zebra crossing – would not include the quirky touch of a barefoot McCartney had he not whimsically decided to discard shoes and socks due to the sweltering heat on the day it was shot.
The Norman Conquest, 1066 and all that, might never have happened: stormy weather in the Channel allowed William to land unopposed. Wind and a violent storm saved us from invasion by sinking the Spanish Armada in 1588.
I think we can safely say that as a nation we love to talk about the weather. Or perhaps we love to grumble about it. The weather seeps into our national fabric, from our language to our inventions to our history.
• Darkness guitarist Dan Hawkins on reforming the band, a Southern Rail diss track and buying a bike - Balcombe-based Darkness guitarist Dan Hawkins talks sibling squabbles and Southern strikes