Extreme

Sydney has just had its hottest day since 1939 – it sizzled in at 49 degrees C. Meanwhile, on the other side of the hemisphere, up some mountain in New Hampshire a group of crazy young meteorologists have measured the temperature plunging to -67 degrees C. Neither is very conducive to humans going about their businesses. I’ll never complain about the weather again! Towards the end of last week I thought I might have to start building an ark to sail around the streets of Edinburgh as it has been so wet, but that has cleared away now and we are left with cloudless blue skies and (compared to the Eastern US and Canada) pleasantly cold weather.

Last year in the Modern Art Gallery here in Edinburgh, as part of a British realist exhibition, I was particularly drawn to two paintings on the same subject, both by women. One was by Gladys Hynes (painted in 1919), called ‘Noah’s Ark’. The brightness and luminosity of the colours almost hurt my eyes. Serene, elongated people helped pairs of monkeys, goats, kangaroos, ostriches, tigers, pigs, camels, elephants, and parrots up a ramp and onto the ark. It was set against an incongruous background that was probably Penzance, where she lived. The painting is pastoral, aspiring and confident.

Hung next to it was the same subject depicted in a very different way by Winifred Knights (painted one year later in 1920) and called ‘The Deluge’. Whist Hynes’ depiction has more animals than people, Knights’ painting is all people – I counted 24 of them: babies, children, parents, and the elders – arms held aloft in alarm and dismay as they flee for higher ground, and one dog leading the way. Knights often painted herself into her canvases, as she did in this one; there she is, one of the petrified crowd. It is grey and hopeless and embodies a sense of 1920s post-war ruin. There is no ark to be seen. Two extreme takes on one extreme bible story: one leads us to believe in sanctuary and salvation, and the other strikes terror as the water is going to devour them.

I grew up with wind, on the North coast of Ireland; gales so strong and regular that we would be locked into our cliff-top school for safety. Snow – almost never, hot days – very occasionally, and rain – well there was no shortage! But never (as far as I can remember) did the rain lead to flooding, there was never a need for an ark. Unlike when I lived in York for a couple of years, where it flooded regularly. The infamous Kings Arms pub by the side of the River Ouse has a wooden maker inside the door marking the depth to which the water has breached it over the years: it happens with depressing regularity. Yet somehow, people pick themselves up, wait till the waters subside, pump out, dry out and – whilst they surely must be worn out – they start over.

If you are one of those experiencing extreme weather currently, I hope you are bearing up. And if you are like me and apt to complain that the day hasn’t dawned to your liking, think on Sydney and New Hampshire and rechristen your day as ‘glorious’!

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