I’m too old to be out in this weather.
Today, it rained. It was raining cats and dogs at 9.30 when I set out to collect my 100 home-shopping catalogues and it was raining cats, dogs and pitchforks at 2.00 when I finally got home. Out of 100 catalogues I only got 60 back, plus one ruined one – like a paper lettuce – plus four minuscule orders. I don’t believe I’ve been so utterly exhausted and depressed or comprehensively drenched since the day I visited St Andrews in Scotland with my ex-husband in 1974. St Andrews: sheet after sheet of cold, horizontal, needle-like rain sweeping up its main street, then sweeping back down again, and the wind blowing in all directions at once. Why am even I doing this? I asked myself.
Twelve cats and only the State Pension, I answered.
Today, by chance, is also the anniversary of the Great Storm of 1987 or, as most people call it, The Hurricane. At its height the wind reached 134 mph. It hit France first, then the South of England, and nobody was really expecting it. A woman phoned the BBC that evening, worried about the rumours she had heard of a hurricane heading this way from France. Michael Fish, the BBC’s weather man at the time, more or less told her to Calm Down, Dear. Nothing to bother your pretty little head about. And then the Storm hit. Michael Fish has been forgiven, but since that day nobody believes anything he says about anything.
My husband woke me in the middle of the night (I’ll sleep through anything) and we peered out of the bedroom window at erratic blue flashes all along the coast. These were power cables going down. The noise was like nothing either of us had ever heard: breaking glass, smashing tiles, the rain and then the howling. It was like a giant genie had been let out of his lamp.
Britain’s weather is famed for its variety and unpredictability, and Britons for their never-ending, low-level moaning about it, also their inability to talk, either with strangers or each other, about anything else. Weather-talk is the universal conversational currency in a shy nation: without it, we would probably fall silent. But no one had seen anything like this. It was beyond conversation.
We were told that the last Great Storm had been more than two hundred years before – the Great Storm of 1703. According to Wikipedia, however, storms of this strength form over the North Atlantic every thirty or forty years. The thing is, they usually hit Scotland, and this is convenient because the Scots are hardy nation, and Scotland is half-empty. This time, however, the storm tracked low, over the south-east of England, the most densely populated area of all, and the damage it did was immense. Sevenoaks, a town in Kent named for its seven mighty oaks, lost six in one night. An estimated fifteen million trees were lost.
And here’s the thing – a Great Storm could actually happen again at any time. Afterwards we comforted ourselves that that at least that was that, over and done with, for the next two hundred years. By the time the next one struck we’d be safely dead and all those white-suited future-people living in gleaming space-pods, partial to Cadbury’s Smash powdered mashed-potato and waited upon by tinny-voiced robots, could have the pleasure of dealing with it. Unfortunately, probability doesn’t work like that. Another Great Storm could hit us tomorrow; it’s just that the likelihood of its doing so is low-ish – around 0.5%. Please don’t ask me how probability works.
Maths, the final frontier…
The next morning we walked out and took a look around. It was still kind of windy, but eerily quiet. The trees on St Martin’s Field were lying down, as if they’d decided to take a nap after a century or so of standing about. Their poor old roots were on display, naked and somehow obscene, and around each root-ball a great hole had opened up. I went to the village supermarket. It was dark inside (the power outage would last for several days). In the darkness, hitherto civilised village ladies were squabbling – in that wordless but utterly determined British way – over tins of soup. We didn’t know how long it was going on, all this… untowardness. Anything might run out, and in an emergency we stock up. This is an instinct born of two wars and year upon year of rationing. We dart for tins of soup in supermarkets. As with the New Year Sales, women elbow and kneecap each other silently, viciously and ever so politely out of the way. My soup. My four-pack of economy baked beans. Mine.
The girl at the till was in a state of shock, obviously still hoping it would somehow work, even without an electricity supply. She kept pressing buttons, randomly, harder and harder, but nothing kept happening. She started trying to add things up on paper bags with a pencil and a tiny calculator. The local Comprehensive was not big on mental arithmetic. The queue, stretching back into the darkness between the aisles, started trying to help, doing its own calculations and proffering them as polite, but increasingly tense, suggestions.
Nothing would ever be quite the same again. Hurricanes aren’t supposed to happen here. And yet one did.
Our faith had been shaken. Something had been lost.
Lena Horne: Stormy Weather