Tuesday, March 12, 2019

An Ill Wind

After enduring our windy weekend, and writing yesterday's post about it, I've been thinking about wind, and the idea that wind puts people's nerves on edge. I know I've felt edgier the past several days, and our weather has been unsettled all that time. It's still gusty out there, though not nearly as bad as it was on Sunday.

I turned to my old paperback copy of Joan Didion's classic essay collection, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," from 1968. (I bought this book for a quarter at least 30 years ago and it's undoubtedly among the best quarters I've ever spent.) I seemed to remember Didion making a connection between wind and tension, and sure enough, it's in the first paragraph of the first essay, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream":

"The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows."

Didion further dissects the tension inherent in the Santa Ana wind in her essay "Los Angeles Notebook," and she wasn't the first person to remark upon it. Raymond Chandler, the consummate Los Angeles storyteller, famously wrote:

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks."

These are two relatively recent references to edgy winds, but writers have mentioned them for hundreds of years. John Heywood wrote of "an ill wind that blowth no man to good" way back in 1546. I'm sure writers in other cultures have drawn similar connections. And to bring Shakespeare into the loop, we're near the Ides of March, the season of danger and betrayal.

Of course the wind we've been feeling around here isn't like the Santa Ana. It's not a desert wind; we're not living on the brink of combustion. Our gusts have been recorded at 65 or 70 mph, not 100.

But it's still enough to make the house shudder and knock over the patio chairs and get on my nerves.

(Photo: A roadwork project near our flat.)


  1. As far as I know strong winds blowing across the ear causes a change of pressure in the eardrum..enough to make anyone grumpy!

  2. I am sure that the general behaviour of schoolchildren is affected by the weather and in that I certainly include windy days. When winds buffet schools they also seem to buffet children's minds...maybe the minds of teachers and support staff too!

  3. I've spent a night on the 8th floor of a hotel in Wellington, NZ, and expected to be blown into the sea any minute, roof and room and all. Not much sleep that night. Wellington is the windiest city on the planet. Nobody seems to be affected by it.
    But it takes some getting used to and cycling can be very tough.

  4. Thanks, Steve, for those passages. I really enjoyed stopping for a moment and just savoring those writers' way with words.

  5. When you wrote about the wind two days ago and how it was affecting you I immediately thought of the Raymond Chandler passage. That last sentence has to be one of the most awesomely (in the real sense of the word) descriptive passages in the English language.

  6. it's very still here today, not a single chime from a single wind chime.

  7. For two years I lived at Wakeham Bay in Northern Que. The wind went across the flat expanse and then dropped immediately down on the coast. It was a wild nasty wind.

  8. I hadn't ever thought about the impact of winds in such beautiful prose. I love it. I've experienced the Santa Ana winds, and it is pretty daunting. But the winds I remember most are the Chinooks that blew in at over 100 mph when I was living in Boulder, Co in 1982. It had over 20 gusts of 120-130 mph all night long. It sounded like a train was coming straight through the house.

  9. In "The English Patient" by Michael Ondaatje Almásy tells Katharine about winds when they are trapped by a sandstorm--
    --who knew talking about the wind could be so seductive.
    From the movie:

    "Let me tell you about winds...
    There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives. ... There is the hot, dry ghibli from Tunis, which rolls and rolls and produces a nervous condition."
    And more:

  10. "Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks." What an incredibly descriptive line! We get a taste of those Santa Ana winds here in the desert from time to time. In fact, we are scheduled for some wind tomorrow according to the weather app on my phone. We have rain all day today.

  11. I love it when a good writer just puts something down that makes you perfectly imagine it. Wonderful.

    I saw on the news this morning a video of a London man walking past a building and then bricks just toppled right where he'd just been, they said they were blaming it on the wind. I think it makes sense that wind puts us on edge, it can be dangerous. One thing I always think when there is a lot of wind is that I can't hear as well, and that makes me a little jumpy.

  12. Yep, it's been blowing, and will continue to blow here. It's also raining and cold. I am being made very cranky by the whole thing. We're not as bad as some areas, but it really is wearing on my last nerve.

  13. I have quoted that Raymond Chandler line dozens of times. It's a great one.

  14. When I was younger I used to like to go out walking in the wind. Not very bright, I know that now - luckily no tree branch or road sign ever took me out :) Now I park myself on the couch and hope no tree branch comes through a window to finish me off! I don't think I could take constant wind; that's a bonus of living in the Maritimes, the weather is always changing.

    I hope to find that book of Joan Didion's second-hand someday!

  15. Perhaps because it isn't windy right now, I am thinking fondly of windy days, the briskness of them. The cover of that Joan Didion book brings back memories! It was the book we were assigned to read in a summer internship between my sophomore and junior years, when I was deciding that I wanted to be a writer, as presumptuous as that sounded to me. Joan Didion was a writer with a capital W back then. And I daresay still. Your posts often remind me we are of similar vintage.

  16. Another thing: I made my blog private for work reasons and I'm not sure I have your correct email to invite you. Could you email me at 37paddington@gmail.com and let me know which is the best email to use?