David Waywell provides an alternative take on one of the week’s lesser-reported stories.
This week we discovered that we don’t notice the weather until somebody gives it a name. Yes, I know. You’re right to be sceptical but that is the rationale the UK’s Met Office is using to justify its new ‘Name our Storms‘ project which promises to put the British public on first name terms with the coming winter.
Barney hit the UK this week, barely days after we’d recovered from Abigaile. Our next storm will be called Clodagh, then Desmond, Eva, Frank, Gertrude, Henry, Imogen, Jake, Katie, Lawrence, Mary, Nigel, Orla, Phil, Rhonda, Steve, Tegan, and Vernon. If any of us are left standing after those twenty lashings, the last storm will be called Wendy. Rather disappointingly, we skip Q, U, X, Y, and Z and there is one more female name than there is male. Patriarchy, misogyny or just lousy at Scrabble? I can’t make up my mind.
There might well be some sense in the theory that we don’t recognise a threat unless we give it a name. Anthropomorphism is as old as the hills, which for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call Bill and Janice. Pagans routinely looked at the world and created gods for the various forces that influenced their lives. That seems to be true of early cultures across the planet. The Vikings personified lightening in the form of Thor who was Zeus to the Greeks, Jupiter to the Romans, and Chris Hemsworth to the Americans.
Our culture is filled with the remnants of that early paganism. If you’re up on your Middle English, you might remember the introduction to the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne.
Clearly the Met Office aren’t up on their Chaucer otherwise they might not have skipped Z, which provides ample choices to balance things out and give an equal number of male and female names. Not only is there Zephyrus but also Zippy, Zebedee, Zarathustra, Zac Goldsmith, though technically the last can’t be applied to a storm, only to a large circulating body of hot air.
Giving human names to storms might therefore make some sense. Our ancestors knew a few tricks that we’ve long forgotten. We might scoff at the pagans but they knew the land better than we’ll ever do this side of an apocalypse. They could read the skies and taste the weather whereas we look out the window, decide that we’ve no idea if it’s going to rain or shine, and then ask Siri for the answer.
So the Met Office’s plan is a good one. Right?
Well no. I can’t escape the feeling that we’ve regressed. Naming storms feels like we’ve just added another layer of abstraction to our ignorance of nature. Surely we’re beyond this. One of the signs that we’ve grown out of infancy is that we can visit the bathroom without giving the experience a narrative arc with a cast of larger than life characters such as Percy the Porcelain and Uncle Seamus the Seat (only angry when he’d been left wet or standing).
Doesn’t it also feel faintly ridiculous given the nature of British weather, which rarely throws cars through petrol stations or lifts up container ships and drops them on churches? Across the Atlantic, they have good reasons to name their storms. Some primal instinct tells them to honour the tempest before it sucks up their homes and everything they’ve ever known. Naming slightly blustery weather just opens we Brits up to ridicule. Besides, it is clearly designed to appeal to the Twitter masses and to give the Met Office some cheap PR. Soon the storms will be tweeting us their updates, promoting goods and services, giving media interviews.
So, please, whatever personification of bluster and hype exists up there in the heavens, can’t you just stop this before it gets out of hand? I don’t want to know the name of the next spell of bad weather. In fact, I’d prefer it if it didn’t have a name. Then, like Lear, I could just rage at its anonymous presence rather than making it all feel so very personal.
Blow, Nigel, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You Imogen and Frank, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!