November 1, 2013 6:50 pm

A storm of sneering

‘By the middle of Monday the population that had cowered at home was out mocking the storm for not being hard enough’
Weatherman illustration©Lucas Varela

Technically we didn’t have any hatches to batten down ahead of last weekend’s storm but we took the advice to heart in any case. It’s curious because, according to the BBC, most of Britain was battening down the hatches it didn’t have.

I’ve never met anyone on land with a hatch to batten down but this is what comes of being a maritime nation. We are always being told to do things that might have seemed wise on a 32-gun man-o’-war in mid-Atlantic but are less essential in a three-bedroom semi in London. We also considered splicing the mainbrace, beating to quarters and shivering our timbers but, in the end, we simply resolved to head home early from a day out in the country, not park the car under a tree, and drop anchor in front of the TV. The next morning we surveyed the damage which, happily, amounted to a badly mauled lavender bush and an upturned recycling bin.

So for me, the most striking feature of the St Jude’s storm was the speed with which the nation moved from fear to sneer. By the middle of Monday there had been at least four storm-related deaths, but already the population that had cowered at home with bottles of Badoit and a year’s supply of John West tuna chunks was out mocking the storm for not being hard enough.

Suddenly sardonic survivors emerged to defy the weather, tweeting photos of smashed garden gnomes and upturned lawn chairs with witty comments like “I survived St Jude’s”. This apparently is what remains of the Blitz spirit; you hide in your home and then make jokes about a storm that killed other people because it did not cause enough mayhem where you live. In Edenbridge, Hounslow and Watford, where people were killed by falling trees, locals may feel the damage exceeded a few broken gnomes. Perhaps the barbs of those who were laughing the next morning would have been more impressive if they had previously tweeted something to the effect of “this storm’s rubbish, meet me at 2am under that large, diseased elm”.

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Robert Shrimsley

As soon as the gale had passed without wrecking most of our lives, attitudes hardened; first to the weathermen, government and journalists who had us all worried; then towards rail companies which had failed to send staff out to clear the tracks in the middle of the storm. How dare they not have the 7.06am running as normal. How dare airlines ground flights, or major thoroughfares prevent us walking under wobbly cranes. Never mind that everywhere one walked there were strewn branches, felled signs and the general detritus of a storm: it’s health and safety gone mad, isn’t it? For heaven’s sake, not even Hitler stopped us walking under unsafe cranes.

At home, the spawn were similarly contemptuous. What, after all, was the point of a disruptive gale in the middle of half-term? If the weather wanted to have a real impact, surely it would not have scheduled its storm for a school holiday? Even the NUT understands that much.

At work, it was as if the entire nation felt cheated of major disruption. Yes, there were power lines down and train cancellations but we were promised real chaos and, frankly, we wanted to see some of it, as long as it happened to someone else. Obviously it was all a false alarm. Claire Perry, Tory MP and now a government whip, clearly thought so, tweeting that the train companies had gone “overboard” and adding: “This is normal autumn weather. #noblitzspirit”. Perhaps she can explain the Blitz spirit to one of those families in Edenbridge, Hounslow or Watford. I’m sure they are also furious at the over-reaction to this normal autumn weather.

Whether rail companies and others over-reacted is arguable. Disruption was guaranteed and they were damned whatever they did. But either way, downplaying a storm that claimed lives seems in rather poor taste. I prefer to think the Met Office, government and emergency services helped minimise casualties by ensuring people stayed indoors – though we were unlikely to be elsewhere. It wasn’t exactly sunbathing weather.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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