Bad News

Iain Sinclair

  • Weather by John Farrand
    Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 239 pp, $40.00, June 1990, ISBN 1 55670 134 9
  • Weather Watch by Dick File
    Fourth Estate, 299 pp, £14.99, November 1990, ISBN 1 872180 12 4
  • Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment edited by J.T. Houghton, G.J. Jenkins and J.J. Ephraums
    Cambridge, 365 pp, £40.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 521 40360 X
  • Crop Circles: The Latest Evidence by Pat Delgado and Colin Andrews
    Bloomsbury, 80 pp, £5.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 7475 0843 7
  • The Stumbling Block, Its Index by B. Catling
    Book Works, £22.00, October 1990, ISBN 1 870699 05 X

Separate, within his glass-enclosed elevation, the riverboat pilot glances wearily at the undramatic shoreline, and spins the wheel to bring us closer to the west bank. His rapid spiel picks out, for the benefit of tourists ploughing resignedly from Totnes to Dartmouth, the celebrities who have made their homes, or pitched their weekend cottages, within sight of the Dart. His list climbs, in order of precedence, through the ranks of the famous and infamous, the recently notorious and the hopefully forgotten: an inflation of Dimblebys, a lobotomy of Heavy Metal percussionists, Daphne du Maurier, Dame Agatha Christie – then, finally, his voice rasping with emotion, a raven’s croak of intensely local pride ... the birthplace of Bill Giles, television weatherman, cold front pundit, guru of the wind-chill factor. A meaningful silence advects along the deck as we contemplate the blessings heaped upon this hamlet, this shrine. We find ourselves glancing involuntarily at the skies, as if the very act of naming the Devonian shaman should bring down thunder from the troposphere, cataracts and hurricanoes, empurpled messengers of apocalypse. It is a bald truth: our peculiar island tribe still worships, above all false idols and over-familiar commentators, these hierophants of climate – initiates capable, after years of severe druidic study, of foretelling the shifts in the cloud masses, the future weather, what we will wear and how we will behave three days from now.

One of the more freakish extensions of this personality cult is ‘The Bill Giles Weather Show’, an 18-day tour, replete with agents, roadies, isobar groupies, all the trimmings. Tonight, Croydon. Tomorrow? The wellington-booted meteorologist attracts them to the Ashcroft Theatre like an aggregate of colliding snow crystals. They can’t bang those fivers down fast enough. Behaviour which Giles modestly characterises as ‘faintly odd’.

Clearly, those twitchy citizens and entrail-consultants, the big publishing combines, are right to identify ‘weather’ as bad news, the kind of bad news they like. The bad news that is very good news for them. The kind that real people talk about, people in wine-bars and hospitality suites. ‘Weather’: that species of elegantly showy – but neutral – topic that does well on late-night television and inspires agonised polemics in the Sunday supplements. Fay Godwin. Fay Weldon. All the Fays. There is concern at the Palace. Even the Cabinet war-council is cruising for some green relief, some planetary crisis to get them off the hook.

Publishers have only to bring into focus all this universal, non-specific weather angst, then to feed it, fan it, explain it away. The resultant, glossy anthologies of climatic irregularities – acid rain, the Milankovitch theory, negative feedback loops – read like so many Gothic shockers. Texts as grim as Aids philippics present themselves as cures for cancer. They raise spectres of hope in places where hope cannot live. The age demands its technical primers, its books of instruction. We must prepare ourselves for a new cycle of primitive weather worship: circles in the crops, pulsing stones, dowsing, alien visitations, all that nostalgic revivalist froth.

John Farrand Jr has called his lap-crushing picture book, very simply, Weather. The subject is, according to the blurb, ‘awe-inspiring and inescapable’. Photographs are the thing here, a spectacular portfolio, record sleeves of the right stuff, captured awe. They are credited to an impressive team of lensmen such as Brad Fallin, Stan Osolinski, Chlaus Lotscher. Wonderful names, evocative names. Columns of them. Rolling credits reading like some disconcertingly sensuous concrete poem. The colour shots are very striking, in a Tokyo-printed, fat-magazine kind of way; that slightly self-conscious excellence of serious investment lurking behind a noble topic – ‘Life’, ‘Time’, ‘Nature’, one of those single-name enterprises. The gourmet layout freezes your attention for a moment, but then you have to keep the pages flicking to get at the rest of the images, which turn out to be much more of the same. Weather matters only when it is picturesque. There is an unavoidable tendency here towards product-endorsement, without the product. ‘Horses on a Hilltop’ is intended to demonstrate ‘the cloudless sky of a Polar Continental air mass’: but you can’t help scanning the margins for the Marlborologo.

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