6 May 2015
It comes, as always, as a surprise. The first sou’wester of the early summer slams into us with a relentless violence and moaning voices edged with the velveteen temperatures that seem so shocking to the skin after the months of winter’s icy caress. Each morning, now, I step outside for a moment or two after I unlock the cat flap, naked skin tingling with anticipation of the summer to come. Of course, in other climes at other latitudes, this is no surprise. Hot air is more powerful than cold; hurricanes and tornadoes come in frightening waves, in seasons. But this is England: too polite for such extravagances. Here we expect our weather to conform to certain acceptable limits, all forms of extreme excluded from a rigid society that simple does not tolerate such things.
This blow is lasting at least two days, a horrific-looking swirl of anti-cyclonic air sitting just above Glasgow, barely moving, sending great swirls of wind arrows across the synoptic map, down around the Atlantic coast and then slamming into land just about here, where the Atlantic meets the English Channel, isobars as tightly packed as the contour lines of the coastal hills. It seems hard to escape, up here on the ridge. We hunker indoors, the cat staring dolefully out of his french door, next to the flap that offers him useless and unwanted freedom. There is something almost sinister about wind without rain. It too seems to be a non-winter phenomenon, although that may just a feeling, an meteorological nonsense. Sinister, too, that there is no escape. Maritime legend talks of sailing ships and their embattled populations riding out storms that never end, winds that blow without remorse for days and days and weeks and months. These big sou’westers feel like that here, occasionally taking pause before slamming back, making the house shake.
The language of weather belongs to culture as much as place. Here we have the Shipping Forecast, its measured tones now considered the stuff of poetry. Is this, I wonder, because life for so many has become so detached from the natural world that the stuff of the real becomes something poetic, out of touch, exotic? Or is it simply the delivery of the decades, a measured flatness designed for maximum legibility across the vagaries of long wave radio? It all seems to belong now to a different era (which in a way it does, with sophisticated GPS/Radar systems and access to weather forecasts from so many different sources and immediate technologies). Although now delivered in the polyglossolalia of the contemporary BBC it somehow is always heard in the mind in a measured, male, artifically-cultured BBC voice, as it was for so many decades since the first broadcast in the mid-1920s. And yet the Shipping Forecast is for the BBC merely a script, one provided by the Met Office, one of the holdout preserves of an enfeebled public service, a battered state, as indeed is the BBC itself. How much longer will either be protected from the clutches of profit?
Today ‘there are warnings of gales in Viking, North Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Dogger, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth, Biscay, Fitzroy, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Fair Isle, Faeroes, and Southeast Iceland’, covering large parts of our islands.
This language of the world nearby is nevertheless exotic and foreign, tinged the unintelligible because we are never quite sure where these places are or exactly what it all means. ‘Low Viking 980 expected Norwegian Basin 981 by midnight tonight. Low Malin 982 expected Fisher 995 by same time.’ The names are familiar and yet with blurred meaning. But the joy of this language is that, like so many other secret languages available only to those with knowledge, it is very precise, designed to save lives through its precision and careful choice of words. ‘Moderate’ and ‘rough’ mean something absolute: even the word ‘very’ has a tipping point inherent within it. Even those gloriously slippery words ‘soon’ and ‘later’ here have a precise meaning. The language, too, has a brevity born of its antecedents in the age of the telegraph rather than the radio, words missing and unnecessary because so well understood. Today, we (Plymouth, North Biscay) are:
‘Southwesterly 6 to gale 8, decreasing 4 later (phew). Rough or very rough, becoming moderate later, Squally showers. Good, occasionally moderate.’
Later, I must go down to visit the anticipated 12-foot waves, before, like all other sea states and all other weather, it becomes something else. Already the house has ceased to moan, although perhaps this is just a lull.