Tropical heat and Japanese seaweed bewilder Britons
London — ''What dreadful hot weather we have,'' wrote Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra. ''It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.'' She was writing almost 190 years ago, in an unusually warm September in 1796. She would have been just as accurate had she written in July 1983: Britain has been fighting inelegance with a vengeance in recent days.
In April and May it hardly stopped raining. Now the sun has been pouring down and temperatures have been 90 degrees F. or more. For a country famous for rain and fog, it is a welcome change - despite the surfaces of some major roads starting to melt (one section near Guildford in Surrey actually caught fire), some forest fires, and the watering of some gardens being banned.
* Meanwhile, even while newspapers, radio, and television were dominated by the debate on whether to bring back the gallows to punish the crime of murder, the summer has produced a varied crop of other conversations in these suddenly baking days and long soft twilights.
There have been the Scots, for instance - or rather, the Scots talking about themselves. Are you aware that Lloyd George is said to have remarked that ''the Scots have got only one bad fault - there are too few of them''?
Or that Voltaire once said, ''It is from Scotland that we receive rules of taste in all the arts''?
Such quotations (and many more) have been revived in a burst of activity by the Scottish Development Agency in Glasgow. Intent on attracting new industry to a part of Britain suffering badly from economic recession, the agency is running television advertisements listing Scottish inventions, from asphalt to the sextant.
The agency has also compiled a formidable list of information under the heading ''the great Scots.'' Scotland, for instance, provided 25,000 settlers to the American colonies in the decade before the Revolution. The earliest Scots settlement was in Georgia, the largest in North Carolina.
Did you also happen to know that at least 11 presidents were of Scottish ancestry (and that Ulysses Grant has a street named after him in Tayport, Fife)? That Thomas Jefferson traced one line of his maternal ancestry to the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce? That the original ''Uncle Sam'' was one Samuel Wilson whose parents emigrated from Greenock?
I thought not. You may be similarly unmoved to learn that Scottish dancing is ''increasingly popular'' with the Japanese, and that a Scottish firm called Watkins was the first to use watermarks in banknotes.
Oh well. Some Scots take it all very seriously indeed. . . .
* The readers of the London Times have also been mulling over a report that Latin simply isn't what it was.
Once a gentleman (and a lady) studied Latin as a matter of course. But a new survey of ''independent'' schools (a title invented by upper-crust private schools to try to convey a more egalitarian public image) is about to show that science has taken over Latin's traditional place as a compulsory subject.
The era in which Lord James once remarked that one had to go to a very good school indeed to avoid doing science is now over. Science is part of the general core curriculum. In most schools, Latin is simply another optional subject. Most universities don't require it.
Then there's a fearsome new breed of ''alien seaweed,'' as the headlines call it. Sargassum muticum is from Japan and was first discovered in British waters 10 years ago.
Marine biologists say it has already spread the length of the south coast. Defying all efforts to control it, it could eventually spread right around the entire coastline of Britain. A single strand can grow 15 feet in one season. When a frond breaks off it remains able to reproduce, and settles in tidal ponds and narrow channels.
It does no real harm, but apparently not much good, either. It is inedible and less useful than other kinds of seaweed as fertilizer. Besides, it clogs the propellers of small boats - but ''we are just going to have to get used to seeing it,'' a biologist remarks.
* On a more serious note, British people seem to be drinking more alcohol - but smoking fewer cigarettes.
An unpublished report written four years ago by the Central Policy Review staff (the government think tank just abolished by the Thatcher government) called for immediate action to fight alcoholism. According to a leaked version, it says that duties should be raised at a faster rate (the government has since begun to do this). It suggested that alcohol might be banned from places of work , and urged a new advisory council on alcohol.
As for smoking, the number of nonsmokers seems to be rising. The BBC is rebroadcasting a television series on how to stop, which caused 100,000 viewers to write in for more information. Britain's best-known political interviewer, Sir Robin Day, has appeared to talk about his own decision to stop.
Meanwhile, as new Speaker of the House of Commons Bernard (''Jack'') Weatherill settles into his gown, wig, and chair, ex-speaker George Thomas from Wales is a new hereditary peer - Viscount Tonypandy (after the Welsh town in which he was raised).
His Welsh wit became famous during his term, one of the most successful in this century. Before he had chosen his formal title, he was asked what name he favored.
''I don't mind what I'm called,'' he replied, ''as long as I'm called for breakfast.''
Speaker Weatherill's original profession was a tailor. Now he occupies one of the most famous seats in the country. His voice calling ''Order, order'' is known nationwide as it begins daily BBC parliamentary reports.
A final story concerns the ritual of the speaker's procession through tourists and workers in the Palace of Westminster to the chamber each afternoon at 2:30. One day, the story goes, the speaker appeared as usual, preceded by a Badge Messenger and the sergeant-at-arms bearing the mace. It is the custom for a policeman to cry out, ''Hats off, strangers.''
Just as the policeman gave voice, one Scottish member of Parliament spotted another and shouted, ''Neil!'' - and dozens of tourists dutifully sank to the stone floor.