A storm of words
An unBritish weather event shows how language can make a bad situation worse
Eyemouth, November 26: photographer Jake Dougal
At 1pm on October 15, 1987, the most famous weather forecast in British television history was broadcast. Michael Fish, the presenter, started by saying that the BBC had ‘apparently’ received a call from a woman saying she’d heard a hurricane was on the way.
“Don’t worry – there isn’t,” he said. “Having said that, the weather will become very windy”.
There followed the worst storm in living memory. It was very windy: one gust from what is now described as a violent extratropical cyclone reached 122 mph.
The Michael Fish broadcast makes for painful and revealing viewing today. His tone is both emollient, complacent and patronising to non-experts – and to that anxious female caller. It was also a very British moment. Underlying his words was the calm conviction that hurricanes are foreign things, far too extreme and violent for our damp and mild island nation.
I thought about Michael Fish a fair bit last week as we desperately tried to keep warm and cook toast and eggs on top of a small wood burning stove.
Storm Arwen cut off power from 130,000 households in north-east England and Scotland. In our Borders farmhouse, we had no electricity for five days and no water for two. Douglas firs in the wood next to the house were uprooted and fell into each other and onto the barn. Even today, the earth around the surviving trees is bulging and rippling as the roots loosen.
Another big ‘storm’, Barra, has just passed through, with less destructive consequences.
I was in London for the ’87 storm. Arwen was just as bad. I’ve also experienced three typhoons in Hong Kong and Japan. Arwen was a match for two of them, and nearly as bad as the ‘T10’ that hit Hong Kong in August 2017.
But at no point in the coverage before or after Arwen was the word ‘hurricane’ used. The weather forecasters have learned a lot since 1987. They now put on grave faces and have a new scale. This was a red warning. That sounded quite bad. But if we’d known a hurricane was coming, I wouldn’t have been driving down to the village to see if the chip shop was open. There were plenty of people out and about. Their bins were outside, their shed doors unlocked, their windows un-taped.
In Hong Kong, everyone would have been in shutdown, In Japan, air raid sirens would have sounded.
Michael Fish in 1987: calm down, dear
When is a hurricane not a hurricane?
Fir tree in unforeseen barn encounter outside my home
We have a question of linguistics and messaging here as much as meteorology.
First, how many of us know what the terms for these dramatic weather events mean?
A typhoon is a Pacific phenomenon. Its Atlantic equivalent is the hurricane. They build over seas as opposed to a tornado, which happens over land.
How does a storm qualify as a hurricane? When winds exceed 75 mph. Arwen’s touched 98 mph. In my neighbouring town of Eyemouth, I’m told they reached 108 mph, but haven’t confirmed that yet.
What I could confirm with my own eyes war the devastation Arwen cause in Eyemouth and my village.
It was a hurricane.
Health, safety and national identity
Boris Johnson: windy words
What links Storm Arwen with COVID. Language, and how that informs our sense of ourselves.
If you asked the British to rank the qualities they have and are very proud of, I’d suggest stoicism and robustness are high among them. Our national narrative is full of stories of stiff upper lips, not grumbling. We love talking about the weather, but we are all Michael Fishy: we don’t use excitable foreign terms for a windy night.
Part of me thinks that is rather glorious; an increasingly larger part of me thinks it foolhardy, silly and, in the light of COVID, deeply reckless.
Right through this pandemic, our leaders have been terrified of laying it on the line. Boris Johnson and his ministers have been forced to lockdown twice, both times weeks too late. Now the Prime Minister has been dragged reluctantly to the lockdown podium again.
Johnson is a man who knows the British psyche as well as any. He relishes channelling the great robust stock figures of English myth and story: Falstaff and John Bull and Winston Churchill. (The comedian Benny Hill too, sometimes). We jut out our chins, pat our bellies, order another round of beef and beer however many foreign warships are massing in the coast or whey-faced scientists are warning of disaster. Newspaper columnists like him love to blow raspberries when ever anyone mentions ‘health and safety’.
Well, as a writer I can admire his verve with language and the brilliance of the caricature of Britishness he gives us. As a citizen, I’m deeply depressed. Slack, inaccurate language, the unwillingness to call a thing what it really is for fear of being called a ‘nanny’ by the fellows in the bar, this desperate need to put on a brave or a smiley face – it’s causing misery and loss, material and human.
It was a hurricane, Michael. It is a pandemic, Boris, and we are about to be hit by another wave as, and maybe worse, than the previous ones. We have the words to describe what things really are. Use them. Then we can, to use another phrase dear to the British race, Be Prepared.
The weatherman repenteth
Fish: older, wiser and better scripted
Twenty-five years after that fateful broadcast, Michael Fish, greyer, pudgier and wiser, had another go. His new bulletin recognised that the BBC’s female caller (now a ‘lady’, I note) had got it right. He went on the describe the actual course of the hurricane.
Well, that’s easy with hindsight, but it does tell you an important thing about weather forecasters: their humility. They learned from ’87 and improved their models. And in the 2012 version, the language was more precise and the warning starker – albeit 25 years too late, of course.
In the study of heuristics – how humans solve problems and the confidence they have in their own judgements – weather forecasters come out pretty well. That’s because they are good at learning when they get things wrong. The profession that scores badly – and this gives me no joy to report – is the medical one.
How to write what you mean
Forthwrite courses are designed to give the words you and the organisation you write for clarity, cut-through and confidence. Weather forecasters and politicians are welcome to join. They, and you, can contact us at email@example.com.