Under The Weather: Us And The Elements, by Tom Fort

Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you
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The Independent Culture

As Mark Twain probably didn't say (at least, not first), "We all grumble about the weather but nothing is done about it." Tom Fort, author of a social history of lawn-mowing and a slithery book about eels, has done something about it. He has written an entertaining survey of the history of man's ceaseless struggle to answer the big question: do I need to take my mac?

Under the Weather reveals that many who made it their business, or pleasure, to scan the skies clearly didn't have the foggiest. One 17th-century know-all declared that winds were somehow puffed out from great dungeons in the earth. Others were convinced that water vapour consisted of a droplet (correct) surrounding a tiny flame (less correct). More difficult to explain were reports of clouds releasing a light-to-medium fall of blood, frogs, fish, nuts or, in freak conditions, skulls.

Not only were weathermen in the dark about where rain, or blood, would fall, they didn't know where it had fallen either. Christopher Wren's friend Robert Hooke invented a rain gauge but it had a major design fault: it couldn't be left out in the rain. John Ruskin pointed out that while Newton needed merely an apple to come up with the theory of gravity, meteorology would require vast teams of researchers and, preferably, rain-resistant measuring equipment. What meteorology actually had was a small band of amateurs who made notes about the raindrops that kept falling on their heads.

Some bright spark attributed the wetter summers between 1770 and 1800 to a surplus of vegetation and a lack of electricity in the atmosphere. His recommended solution was to cut down trees and cover the country with large "electricity creators".

Barometers were a more successful type of technology, even if they tended to point permanently to "Much Raine". In researching the book, Fort made a pilgrimage to Hampton Court, which has a collection of these elegant devices. He visited other sites sacred to meteorology, and set out for the wettest spot in the country - but it was raining so hard that he had to turn back.

The last chapter, on global warming, drifts all over the place like sleet on a Lake District fell; this part can only be described as wet. But Fort brightens up to make his final point: we don't want the weather to be predictable or, indeed, controllable, as we'd have nothing to talk - or, in his case, write - about.

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