A country adrift in hyperbole

'Can I call the leader of Camden Council to account for my failure to get my rockets to ignite on a rainy Saturday evening?'

Share

I WAS too sunny last week when I wrote about the Greatest Storm Ever. Some readers may recall that I gave the year 4007 as a putative date for Earth to be hit by an obliterating asteroid. My apologies. In an update last Monday a group of astronomers told the world that they had now identified an object (they call it SG344), which they calculated to have a 500-1 chance of impacting on our planet on or around 21 September 2030. Though it is true that SG344 may just be a bit of old rocket, nevertheless it does bring forward one possible date for Armageddon by quite a few years.

I WAS too sunny last week when I wrote about the Greatest Storm Ever. Some readers may recall that I gave the year 4007 as a putative date for Earth to be hit by an obliterating asteroid. My apologies. In an update last Monday a group of astronomers told the world that they had now identified an object (they call it SG344), which they calculated to have a 500-1 chance of impacting on our planet on or around 21 September 2030. Though it is true that SG344 may just be a bit of old rocket, nevertheless it does bring forward one possible date for Armageddon by quite a few years.

Since last Tuesday my complacency about my own hilltop residence has also been knocked by the revelation of the phenomenon of dormant springs. Dormant springs are not, as they sound, a dry-as-bone town in the lizardy Australian outback, but a series of subterranean water-courses ready to gush forth all over high-dwellers should the circumstances be right. And, of course, since I last put digit to keyboard on this subject, several towns and villages have indeed suffered from their worst flooding for half a century. Which is incredibly distressing and unpleasant for those who have found their Axminsters, objets d'arts and small pets floating around in a poo-smelling soup, and whose lives have been so disrupted. I wouldn't like it at all.

But I was right about the language of catastrophe being over-used. After the initial storm turned out to have been far less damaging and apocalyptic than first predicted, there then came the problem of how to describe a situation in which there were now genuine and growing problems. The result has been a breathtaking verbal inflation.

For example, we seem to be incapable of using the word "flood" without coupling it to the word "chaos". Now, "chaos" is a good journalistic mot because it only has five letters, and two nice tart-sounding syllables. But have we really had "flood chaos" or have we just had floods? My dictionary defines chaos both in its classical sense of being "formless primordial matter" and the more modern usage as referring to "utter confusion". It does not strike me as being true that there has been "utter confusion" on anything except, possibly, some rail services. People have been evacuated promptly, vital services have continued to operate, the police have guarded empty homes from looters, smiling men in anoraks have appeared driving 1960s amphibious cars. Chaos is simply the wrong word.

Likewise, on Saturday I awoke to discover that - according to the nice Northern woman on the radio - "much of Britain is under water". It wasn't, of course. As a matter of fact she could quite truthfully have stated that "very little of Britain is under water". At the time of writing, something like 10,000 households have been evacuated because of floods out of the 25 million available. But somehow it no longer seems sufficient simply to state the true extent of any tragedy or trial; today it has to be given celebrity treatment, fêted well beyond its desserts, to ensure that the attention is grabbed.

That's why this is, we are told, "bad news for the Government". Not because Chequers finds itself under immediate threat of inundation, leaving Tony to play tennis against the drawing-room wall, but because if there is "chaos", surely the Government should do something about it. Thus we have this editorial yesterday from a mid-range tabloid that isn't yet the Daily Mail. "Britain," it warned, "has the feel of a country adrift ( sic). We are at the mercy of the weather, with the government appearing to have no idea how to cope or what to do..."

I'd nickname the paper the Daily Canute, if it weren't for the fact that the original Canute only sat his chair in front of the incoming tide to prove that governments do not command the elements. Of course we're at the mercy of the bloody weather. Does the governor of Florida take the rap every time a hurricane hits Jacksonville? Or the prime minister of Switzerland get the push for avalanches? Can I call the leader of Camden Council to account for my failure on a rainy Sunday night to get my Banshee rockets (a quid a time) to ignite, thus occasioning - once again - the contempt of my children?

It's not just the Daily Canute though. Others have also remarked upon how the Government has responded to the flooding, talking about it "reacting" to circumstances rather than commanding them. So what would a "pro-active" stance have looked like? Perhaps Mr Prescott should have blown up the Clywedog reservoir and flooded the Midlands himself - that would have been bold. Or he could take the lead right now and fill in all the dormant springs (just in time, no doubt, for the next drought). Or maybe he should be taking John Redwood's advice as proffered to viewers of last week's Question Time. The Conservative campaigns supremo reminded them that Chinese industrialisation may well cause emissions on a pornographic scale. The answer, he said, might have to be spending tens of billions on coastal defences, as the sea rises all around.

Maybe. Chinese industrialisation was well in hand before the 1997 General Election, and I don't recall the Redwood-Major save-our-coasts campaign, but anyone can change their minds. Just as the inhabitants of Shrewsbury may have done. I am one of relatively few extant people to have entered and left that town on the river Severn. As with Bewdley, further downstream (and indeed, as with most riversides), the marks of past floods are everywhere, carefully chalked with their dates on the sides of buildings, or displayed in the form of old photographs in local snugs. Every few years the river Severn floods - always has done.

But the river is also what makes Bewdley and Shrewsbury so beautiful. In the latter it describes a great S through the centre of the town, and you can walk almost the whole distance on pathways on either bank. I couldn't see how you might create flood defences without changing one of the most lovely aspects in England. And nor could the Shrewsburyites. Six years ago, the Environment Agency recommended that walls be built on either bank. The scheme was not turned down because of drift or lack of resolution, but because the local people didn't want it. Campaigners against the walls pointed out that floods were relatively rare, and they also believed that the water would somehow seep through or round the barriers anyway.

At the same time, on the Thames near Maidenhead, I found them carving out a huge new flood channel to save the mansions of the rich and famous (and Rolf Harris), erected on the flood plain, from being soaked every time there is an inundation. I think they should have paid - after all, most estate agents will tell you (or at least, would have in antediluvian days) that a river view adds 20 per cent to the value of your property.

That's usually the true nature of the debate in Britain: precaution versus views. Yet hyperbole and absurd exaggeration now paint us, not as a place of civilised contention, but as a "banana republic" or a "Third-World country". Such is the competitive ratcheting upwards of the description of the scale of Britain's disaster that one more event will have us "returning to the Stone Age", or even the Cretaceous period.

Thus does the Daily Canute warn the Government that if it doesn't get a grip then it risks "leaving Britain in ruins". So never mind unemployment, inflation, education, the NHS, interest rates, defence and arcane stuff like that. What really matters is to show that you have the weather in hand. That God is on your side.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Copywriter / Direct Response Copywriter

£20k plus sales linked bonus. : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Copywriter to j...

Recruitment Genius: Accounting Technician

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has bec...

Guru Careers: 3D Creative Designer

Up to £26k DOE: Guru Careers: A Junior / Mid-Level 3D Creative Designer is nee...

Recruitment Genius: Ecommerce Website Digital Marketing Manager - Fashion / Retail

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You'll be joining a truly talen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michelle Mone attends the annual Serpentine Gallery summer party at The Serpentine Gallery on June 26, 2013 in London, England.  

Michelle Mone made millions selling bras and now dares to enter the House of Lords - what would Lord Sewel and Alan Sugar say?

Kate Maltby
Jeremy Corbyn could be about to pull off a shock victory over the mainstream candidates Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall (AFP/Getty)  

Win or lose, Corbyn will set the agenda unless Labour speaks up

Isabel Hardman
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen