Published by graham on Mon, 01/11/2016 - 11:54
Like the rest of the nation, my wife and I have become acutely weather-conscious. We live by the sea on a bluff overlooking a view to die for. The terraced house faces south-west across the bay and the weather rolls in day after day, a subject of endless fascination. The play of shadow on the nearby ridge of hills. A curtain of rain ahead of an approaching squall. The startling burst of low sunshine minutes later. Pretty phrases until we wake up – all too literally – to the realisation that something has gone profoundly wrong. To die for? We hope not.
The key moment happened a couple of years ago. A sequence of storms – then unnamed – siezed the south-west by the throat and refused to let go. There was a madness in this weather and as the spiral of isobars tightened yet again we became experts at reading the pressure charts. Your attention shifts from the Met Office website to the view. You learn to recognise the symptoms – rags of gauzy cloud veiling the sun, a different feel to the wind, the first sharp stabs of rain, the rattle of a loose tile, the heaving grayness of the ocean laced with spindrift – and all too quickly it becomes routine to wake up to the consequences.
After a particularly vicious storm two years ago, radio and TV tallied the damage. Seafront cafes reduced to matchwood. The main railway line hanging in mid-air at nearby Dawlish. Moored yachts torn from their moorings and wrecked miles upriver. I write crime fiction for a living and there were definite clues here. The storm monster was at large. And – joy unbounded – he knew where we lived.
A week or so later an approaching low pressure system, rapidly deepening, happened to coincide with an especially big spring tide. The ocean had been unhappy for days, still trying to get rid of the energy of what the forecasters were calling “the last weather event”, and the local council were distributing sandbags. The fact that these bags were free was the biggest clue of all. Get yourself a spade and head for the beach. Or risk the consequences.
From where we live we have a grandstand view of the seafront. Darkness fell and by mid-evening the strings of coloured lights between the lamp posts were dancing madly in the ever-strengthening wind. An hour or so later, with the tide still rising, shellbursts of spume began to explode across the road. Like everyone else, we have a fascination with impending disaster. What did it feel like out there? Just how ugly could it get?
We went down to find out. Bad decision. The seafront was already flooded and water was pouring down the streets that led to the town centre. I remember the wakes of diverted cars breaking against sandbagged front doors and one bewildered old man, caught in the headlights as he felt for the invisible kerb with his Zimmer frame, but what was unforgettable was the roar of the ocean behind us and the sheer strength of the wind.
We’ve lived by the sea all our lives. We love weather. But this was something entirely different, a malevolent force roaring out of the darkness: voracious, insatiable, pitiless. On the seafront, I was all for wading across the road and trying to make it to the seawall, partly curiosity and partly some kind of personal test, but the wind was too strong. I needed to look this thing in the eye but mercifully, thank God, it held me back. Spared by the Storm Monster, we struggled home to dry out.
The next day, along the length of the coast, communities began the clear-up. A hundred feet above sea level, we’d been spared serious damage aside from a couple of missing roof tiles and a biggish chunk of masonry ripped from the front of the house when a rain hopper disappeared into the night. But what stayed with me was the memory of that thing out there in the darkness. It had declared its presence and my nerve ends told me we were probably in big trouble.
Crime novelists thrive on big trouble. An appetite for something not yet fully understood is there in the DNA. And so, with a theme and a plot to find for my next book, I started gazing out of the window again. The Met Office, as it happens, is now headquartered in Exeter, just up the river. Many of the people who work there – forecasters, data jockies, climatologists – live down by the sea and I started having conversations.
These people are often younger than you might think. They wear their knowledge lightly and go to great lengths to avoid the geekiness you might associate with turning endless lists of figures into a half-reliable forecast. Weather, they insist, is no mystery, just big data made real. But probe deeper and another story emerges. How decades of pumping CO2 and other effluvia into the atmosphere have distorted weather patterns across the planet. How moisture and warmth are laden with violence. How the jet stream can become the assembly line of your worst nightmare, dumping squillions of extra tons of rainfall on our soggy old island. And how it’s probably too late to reverse – or even cope with – the consequences. Think tropical hurricanes without the coconuts and the palm trees, one told me. Welcome to global warming.
As you might imagine, this was raw meat to the working crime novelist. Conjure a moment of personal violence framed by the wider savagery of a planet cooking itself to death and you might have something pretty special. And so I invented a rogue climatologist, Alois Bentner, a man of acknowledged genius fast losing his bearings in a society heading for self-destruction. By page ten he’s prime suspect in a gruesome disembowelling – and target in a nationwide manhunt. His world, like ours, is falling apart.
Writing books, it helps to try and get inside your characters, both their heads and their hearts. And so, for months on end, I became Alois Bentner and by the time the book was done, my prognosis for the near-future was as gloomy as his. I sent a digital copy of the first draft to a mate at the Met Office. “Have I over-done it?” I asked in the covering e-mail. “Not at all”, came the reply. “Move at once to higher ground”.
I read exactly the same warnings last week as Storm Frank flexed its muscles in the Western Approaches before pouncing on the luckless UK. If you were unlucky enough to live in Lancashire, or Yorkshire, or Cumbria, or Scotland, there must come a numbing sense of despair as you imagine the water levels once again lapping at the top of your mantlepiece. How can this be happening to us? When we’re so clever? When we can post men into orbit without a second thought? When we can edit gene-sequences? When we can play God with the very essence of life itself?
A similar question went to a climatologist on a recent edition of Radio Four’s Today show. He sensibly ducked the metaphysical implications but confirmed that global warming is here to stay. More to the point, he said that things are now moving much faster than anyone with a serious reputation in the field had ever anticipated. In the scary world of melting icecaps and feedback loops, the pictures on TV – and the view from our window – are the new normal.
Our bedroom is under the eaves of the house. As we lay there, digesting this cheerful start to our day, the loose tile began to stir above our heads. Then came the first splatter of rain on the windows and that keening sound in the trees that we’ve come to dread.
The Storm Monster is upon us sooner than we thought. Higher ground may not be enough.