Friday, 19 January 2007

Wet and windy whingeing

We all like to whinge too much, and in London one of the common topics for whinging about is one of the Englishmen's favourite conversation topic: the weather. Those of us not used to the British weather are probably the worst offenders, and based on their experiences of Aussies and other foreigners, the locals could be forgiven for wondering how they managed to earn the epithet "whingeing Poms".

The owner of the shop beneath our flat is originally from the Indian subcontinent. Just about every conversation I have with him includes the phrase "bloody English weather". It's hard to be enthusiastic about the 16 hours of darkness, let alone the grey skies and drizzle, and so it's usually tempting to agree that "In my country, your country, it's better than this." If his change of heart just after new year ("We need to the rain to live. It is a good gift.") was a new year's resolution, it didn't last very long, but it was a very good point to keep in mind at any time, and especially during this drought.

The summer and autumn were both quite dry, but the winter so far has had above average rainfall. Of course, this led to more low level whingeing about the hosepipe bans that were still in place, this time from some natives who are having trouble coming to terms with a metered water supply and summer water restrictions, let alone restrictions in the winter.

It's not helpful to always focus on the negatives, however, and last October, it was reported that Met Office and tv forecasters were being told to "talk up" the weather. The idea that weather reports could put a positive spin on all the atmospheric conditions this island is famous for produced a fair bit of humour, but on closer inspection it turned out that one of the main points of the new guidelines was simply to focus on the weather experienced by most of the population, rather than starting with extreme conditions in northern Scotland simply for dramatic effect.

Another aspect of the guidelines was slightly more interesting, at least to me. Very generally speaking, it suggested substituting phrases like "mostly fine" for "isolated showers". This was applauded by advocates of "Plain English", who thought the new terms would be more widely understood. This is probably true, but I wonder whether the change of emphasis may be at the expense of usefulness or even accuracy for those who do understand the forecasts with a bit of care. When I did a small high school study of the weather forecasts in Sydney 10 years ago, I saw the point in only saying "fine" when they were quite confident in such a forecast, and "chance of showers" whenever there was such a chance. Read this way, the forecasts were quite accurate, and a chance of rain often requires more attention than a chance of a dry day.

Either way, the forecasting guidelines didn't seem to have much effect on the radio forecast this morning. It was something along the lines of "It's very very windy. Rain in the south and snow in the north. Every way you look at it, it's pretty terrible." The tv presenters stuck to the Met Office's "damaging winds", a concept which would be very hard to talk up. It really was quite a wild day, with reasonable amounts of rain an very strong gusty winds. At the college, we had our usual "Severe weather warning" email, advising us to secure windows and things on roofs. Thankfully, I didn't need to walk through the usual wind tunnels at the worst parts of the day, but I did notice that some of them had been closed off, presumably due to the wind. Nationwide, there were irritations like delays to train services and more serious problems as trees fell causing damage and eight deaths.

In conclusion, I don't know whether the new style of forecasts is good thing, and has helped to improve a nation's mood, but I do think it would be better to drop the whingeing and reserve the negativity for times when there are real problems. Even on days like today, there are some positives - the rain has had an effect, and now only two of the water companies are still imposing water restrictions.

[Rainy days are often fun, anyway, even if the mist does block out the intended background of my photo! (taken by Amy)]


tdix said...

Those winds in London were pretty wild, hey. They were the top story on the TV news in Spain yesterday evening. It's pretty cold in Moscow too apparently.

Jonathan said...

Is being cold in Moscow news? I don't think London got the worst of the wind, and now ten people are dead. It's calmed down now and we have some mild days ahead, until the cold hits in on Sunday/Monday, which looks like it's going to be just after some of the daffodils have come up thinking it's spring, just like last year.

Should I give out 10 points for naming the location of my photo, or is it one of those things that's either too easy or too hard?

tdix said...

Spanish news said the United Kingdom was the worst affected, although that may have been due to the number of deaths.

Moscow was reaching around -15 I think and that was unseasonably cold, but the polar bear at the zoo didn't seem to mind.

Your last comment reminded me of a song I sanf in kindergarten. I thoroughly recommend it.

"When the daffodils dance in the usn and the rain, Then we know that the spring time is coming again, Tra-la-la-la-la-la, tra-la-la-la-la-la, Then we know that the spring time is coming again."

For me the location of the photo is definitely way too hard.

Nice alliteration in the title by the way.

Jonathan said...

I think it was worse oop north, but that's still part of the UK. I'm confused about Moscow - the BBC says the average January minimum there is -16, but today's forecast is 0 to 7.

Great song, except that last year we knew that the snow time was coming again.

I guess it's impossible to get anything from the photo alone (blame the clouds), but it needs to be a challenge, right?