Talking about the weather is so much a part of our national psyche that 1987’s infamous Michael Fish’s “hurricane, what hurricane?” broadcast even became part of our own Olympics opening ceremony. A seminal moment in British history?
If you hadn’t seen poor Fish’s footage before or since, then you couldn’t avoid it over the weekend. Poor Fish: a professional lifetime’s work forgotten due to the controversial words of one broadcast. He still claims his words were “taken out of context”.
This time “they” are taking no chances. “They” being the Met Office, the BBC and other broadcasters, plus every newspaper and website you have heard of, and some you haven’t. If I hear the word “hurricane” again, I’m going to go outside, Lear-like, and rage against it. I am of course writing before St Jude wreaks its worse, but already in West London tiles are flying off roofs (ok, one fell off of my neighbour’s) and a fence-plank is down. We all know we don’t “do” abnormal weather, because we live in such a temperate climate.
A notable exception was in January 1990, when I woke after a restless, sleep-interrupted slumber at my Ma’s, expecting that despite all the literal and metaphorical hot air around the great Burns Night storm (arguably more devastating than that of ’87), as usual nothing much would have happened. As the wind howled, looking out at the garden, we couldn’t help thinking that something was different. Neither of us could put our fingers on it for a moment, until we realised that a giant tree was now horizontal across the lawn.
And that’s when it began: the surprising, relationship-changing, life-affirming collective neighbourhood activity that forged a community out of a group of recently flung together new home-owners. Out of nowhere, people we hadn’t spoke to in our first six months suddenly came together to help: not just to saw and lift the tree, but to repair the fencing and the roof, and brew tea, lots of tea. It was all out of a sense of good-neighbourliness, not commerce.
That community spirit persists to this day, almost a quarter of a century later. Ever since, it has shone in times of individual adversity, notably burglaries and bereavements. It has also come together collectively to repel various dodgy planning applications. Yes, the people, united, can sometimes be undefeated.
Strength in adversity. To me that is one of the great historic character traits of the British; one that I believe still persists. Another is a community spirit that some fear is dissipating. Well, let’s not let it. Whatever happens to you and yours during the storm, why not check on your neighbour? You never know what may come from it.
Stefano Hatfield is editorial director of LondonLive