England's autumn wind is like water torture

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

October 22, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The wind is flowing through Lincoln's Inn Fields, a former dueling grounds near the Gothic spires of the Royal Courts of Justice. It whistles through that short tunnel of time that connects summer to winter here, called autumn.

Autumn is not really a season in Britain. It is a deep sigh before the onslaught of darkness as the sun begins to distance itself from this cloudy isle. Lincoln's Inn Fields, where the wind plays, is a perfect park laid out by the architect Inigo Jones in the 17th century for the delight of the gentry of those times who dwelt in houses all around it.

Nell Gwyne, the happy courtesan, lived on the square, looked out at those high-shouldered trees, and in summer sought their crisp shade.

Today several score of the common people live in the park itself, under those same venerable trees, in dwellings of wood and plastic. They are tacking up new cardboard walls these days, taping the cracks against the probing fingers of the wind, resigned to the arrival of the melancholy season.

Some of these people have lived there for over two years, so it's not precise to call them homeless. Their home is in Lincoln's Inn Fields where they have created kind of a rough community life: They share tea on the benches and occasionally, when the weather's good, play soccer. When it's not, they huddle in their hovels and watch the leaves drift down.

No people talk about the weather so much as the British. Probably because no people have so much of it.

The weather may account for the popularity of English landscape painting, all those pictures one sees in galleries around town of warm, sunny glades; so many wishes unlikely to come true. English landscapes tend to have a lot of sky; sometimes half or more of the canvas is given over to it. The probable reason is that the skies over Britain, full of windy turbulence, put motion and drama in static scenes.

London is ever described by degrees of fog and rain, though such descriptions are not appropriate these days. It has been raining a little recently, but the country is going through a drought; hundreds of streams have simply dried up and are lost. The great fogs went after the city banned soft coal for home heating.

So what now distinguishes London meteorologically? The wind, that's what. As the fictional Rumpole of the Bailey might put it: "One doesn't hear too much said of the wind. One ought to."

The winds of London do not bite like Manhattan winds, surging through those icy canyons. They don't have the punch of Chicago's winds, roaring off Lake Michigan. But London's wind has a devilish steadiness to it. It is unremitting, steadfast, indomitable, and thus it shares the salient quality of the people whom it afflicts: constancy.

It is also like the torture of dripping water on the crown of the head; it first annoys, then vexes, then disturbs mightily; it can bring a sensitive mind directly to madness. How appropriate that Shakespeare's great tragic figure, King Lear, raged in the wind.

Not too long ago a group of about 20 Americans was seen gathered around a robed and be-wigged barrister on Carey Street by the law courts. They were visiting members from a California chapter of the Rumpole Society, people who come together to study the sage sayings and iron syntax of John Mortimer's most successful literary character, Horace Rumpole of TV fame, the witty barrister who affectionately refers to his wife as, "She who must be obeyed."

As the barrister went on, the wind, snaking along Serle Street, was attacking in its usual relentless way, nipping at the women's skirts, blowing the men's hair about. Then off went the barrister's wig and in an instant it was a half-block away. The whole crowd, first the barrister gathering his robes like a skirt, then all the rest, went running off after it.

Because the barrister's wig sits loosely on the head, doesn't grip the skull like a hat, it is the wind's frequent prey. It gets nipped off in a second. The barrister with the visiting Rumpolians was not the first seen chasing his headgear down the street.

The legal establishment here is considering abolishing the wig because of its archaic "18th Century flavor." They are not popular with judges, barristers, even large segments of the public. They are only popular with the wind.

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