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)]