Christopher Howse: The Storms Are No Different – But We Are

  • Date: 08/01/14
  • Christopher Howse, The Daily Telegraph

Our instincts have taken a step towards the primitive. The present-day explanation of the storms is that we have offended nature by burning too much organic matter.

After a Cobra emergency committee meeting, Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, said: “Surface water flooding remains likely in some parts.” You can say that again.

With hundreds of flood warnings and alerts in force, and giant waves crashing down on her bulwarks, HMS United Kingdom seems almost to be sinking. Cataracts and hurricanoes rush across the Atlantic in a succession of tight whorls. Wait for the spin-off from the polar vortex over America.

People watch and photograph enormous waves as they break on Porthcawl harbour in South Wales (PA)

This is the worst set of storms for two decades. But two decades is not long. How far back does your memory go? In January 1993 a deep storm (the most intense system of low pressure outside the tropics ever recorded over the north Atlantic) miraculously broke up the oil spilt from the tanker Braer. The Burns Day storm of January 1990 cut off power for half a million. The storm of 1987 blew down 15 million trees. Since history is anything before your own time, history for me includes the storm of 1953 that killed more than 300 in Britain. Who remembers 1928, when 14 drowned in London and piles of Turners wallowed in the Tate?

If the effects of the winter storms today seem worse (although they are not), it is partly because power cuts now instantly deprive a generation that has grown dependent on them of technologies that didn’t exist three decades ago: chiefly mobiles and the internet. Their sudden loss brings isolation, alienation, and a desire to blame someone. [...]

The River Severn bursts its banks and causes widespread flooding in Gloucestershire (Caters News)

It was in a big storm, in February 1661, that “at Tewkesbury a man was blown from an house and broken to pieces”. Those words were written by Daniel Defoe, the author of the classic account of the storm of November 26-27 1703, which still claims the right above all others to the title of the Great Storm.

That night, the sea rushed up the Severn estuary, carrying a whole house and stable inland at Berkeley. When the stable fell apart, out jumped the horse, none the worse. The Bishop of Bath and Wells was not so fortunate. A chimney stack fell on to the bed where he and his wife were lying and drove it through the floor, burying their dead bodies in rubble.

The Great Storm killed 10,000 or 15,000 people. No one quite knows. In the current storms, deaths are rare, thank heavens. The bad-news narrative that blames the weather for everything has to recruit to its casualties even a worker in America crushed by a 100ft pile of salt stockpiled for the icy roads.

Yet the Great Storm of 1703 keeps its title not just by force of fatal numbers, but because Defoe made it appeal to the imagination. He piled up details from contemporary reports until the reader could almost hear the roaring of the wind that lifted the roof from Westminster Abbey. For Defoe, it was a rehearsal for his great disaster novel: A Journal of the Plague Year.

This latter fiction purports to be a collection of facts. It was a way of telling a story that HG Wells developed in The War of the Worlds. Defoe’s narrator, called only HF, in the intervals between casting up the numbers of victims, wonders what caused the plague. He see-saws between natural philosophy (as he called what we know as “science”) and Providence. Was the plague, like the Great Storm to come, a punishment?

Today, we rather resent the right of God to punish us, even if He exists. Yet our own instincts have taken a step towards the primitive. We see bovine spongiform encephalopathy, salmonella in eggs, horse meat in burgers and savage winter storms all as symptoms of having broken some taboo of going “against nature”.

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