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?'

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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

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