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 Marlboro logo.

The visual package in this book might once have been marketed to showcase a selection of poems by Robert Frost. The text is calm and informative, and quietly redundant – like Norman Mailer’s overwrought rhetoric polyfilling a collection of Marilyn Monroe pin-ups. Guiltily, we thirst for something wilder, more fearful. Though, in fairness, several photographs of forked lightning tongues scribbling electric graffiti above bland cityscapes have to be excepted from the accusation of academic complacency. ‘Lightning, Phoenix, Arizona’ has the abrupt menace of a David Lynch dream sequence, the cardiac arrest when a previously straightforward narrative crosses the line and touches a vertiginous post-mortem truth. We need to be reminded of the ugly, petrol-breathed, epidermic floss sulking past our own windows. These stark, unpeopled landscapes of the American photographers, with their zen aridity, will have to be used to sell the cables buried beneath the unsuspecting ground.

Dick File’s Weather Watch, with foreword by Ian McCaskill (who, according to Bill Giles, broadcasts in his bare feet), is a no-nonsense trot in teasingly accessible segments through the excitements of the British weather: carbon dioxide ‘sinks’, Chaos Theory, incentives for reducing emissions. The book touts itself as ‘the perfect companion’. A chummy, avuncular pillow book, a Horlicks of a book, packed with seasonal conversation fillers.

It is easy to imagine a heap of these justified jonahs, together with weightier numbers, such as Climate Change, lost in that attic where all good review copies go to die. Let’s invent some wildly improbable location like the original New Statesman building (before they ducked behind the pastiched gates of their Shoreditch Alamo). The story, the gossip, I picked up on needs this set, and needs these books as dressing. Apparently, a group gathered at the Statesman to honour William Empson. For surviving. A sane voice in a fox-crazy world. There were lengthy speeches, drinks, more speeches, more drinks, and a presentation. But when the moment came around, and they looked for the great man, the bearded sage, it had to be admitted – he wasn’t there, he had vanished. They searched the place from the cellars up. At length, Empson was found. Under the eaves: trembling, in a huddle, a book pressed against his face. One of those abandoned review copies that can’t be fitted into a convenient slot, a grand enough theme: an account of global warming. This had already become the obsession of the poet’s final period – poets are always first to panic – this conceit of melting ice-caps, tabular bergs, monsoons, revenge, all those tumbling, ambiguous green metaphors. Inundation, crushed lungs, steepling walls of white water, Frankenstein’s monster liberated from his Arctic prison, cities swallowed in the chilling rush.

The fears were out. Weather as threat, like Larkin’s sexual intercourse, began with the Beatles. It was canonised from the pulpit by Gregory Bateson in 1967, during the Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation for the Demystification of Violence at the Roundhouse. His sobering report had Allen Ginsberg and R.D. Laing, Trocchi, Michael X, and other disparate luminaries of the International Times devouring every word. We wanted to hear the worst, the spidery voice of doom: the prophetic voice of the Ancient of Days, Blake’s voice hallucinated in Harlem. We wanted to leaf through the Book of Revelation and make it contemporary, like a Paladin paperback. The Pursuit of the Millennium, Bomb Culture, The Politics of Ecstasy. Unless there was a change in the level of global consciousness, we were told, it was finished. Out on the streets, shuttling through the skies – it was already too late. The ghost dance was beginning. The ancient lizard-brain of the frozen oceans, reptilian memory blocks, was melting away, loosening the nightmares, the archetypal Chaldean dreams of deluge and catastrophe.

The city was already old when the gods within it
Decided that the great gods should make a flood.

We invoke the horrors that most excite us, we heat them, give them our concentration – to the exclusion of the rest of the world. Until those horrors are terrifyingly realised, or until they cease to be. There was a very real sense in which the communal strength of the Greenham women, votive priestesses circumnavigating the wire surrounding phallic toys of destruction, actually began to incubate the apocalypse – granting strength and credibility to the evil on which they wilfully focused their attention. The humiliated weapons had to justify their power, or abdicate. It was an interesting time: the final trump was rehearsed, but not sounded.

Weather has become irreversibly damaged, infected with rust. It suffers from our plagues. It is out there, restless, migratory, evolving towards some dim conclusion we do not want to predict. We are barely capable of noticing its shifts, its pressure on our nerves – but our destiny is woven from this ungraspable, amorphous otherness. We are the weather. We see beyond ourselves only what we are about to suffer. The weather, like fate, slides in, unnoticed, from elsewhere. Clouds become a cinema of time, dissolving already written yesterdays into tomorrows we can do nothing to escape.

*

Any writer purposefully tuned to the language of the moment – unguarded, free-associating exchanges of bar and club, precoital confidences, money anger, drug-phased monologues – any writer, hot for whispers of what the city in its communal identity is actually saying, will be obliged to employ the weather as a moral sub-text, a framing device, a ceiling of depression. This shifty persistence of sky damage, clanging hints of something horribly wrong, out there, is what under-writes, and justifies, the colourful behaviour of the ghastly characters trapped within Martin Amis’s London Fields.

Weather as prediction. Weather as a liquid mirror in which that sick man, the writer, reads our future. The skies run like a river of poisons, warning of crimes committed in remote countries. We are sky-watchers, nervous, rhapsodical. Or we keep our eyes resolutely grounded on the broken paving slabs. Weather as a social disease. London weather, squeezing us like bailiffs, insistent and clammy, masking the light, filtering out the truth. Cirrus: filaments of doubt, avatars of future war. ‘I saw a dead cloud not long ago ... The dead cloud came and oozed and slurped itself against the window ... I thought of fishing-nets under incomprehensible volumes of water, or the motes of a dead TV.’ These Amis pawns, with their contagious glamour, are observed from a high window, behind which the authorial presence, the word-spider, sits smoking and brooding. Obediently, they strut their stuff through the agitated chasms of Notting Hill. Rag clouds, with scurfy grey beer-guts, block the window, mess it up: the room is fetched into the local sky, and the writer’s profile smeared against the glass. He becomes part of the sky. He contributes to the weather. His fresh complexion is coarsened by critical grit, flakes of shredded news reports, toxic research, meteorological assessments.

It has all become too ugly, too personal. Weather can no longer be mentioned in polite society. As Peter Redgrove points out in his provocative study, The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense, we are ‘so violently affected by weather change ... that it can easily become a clinical problem’. Redgrove confesses himself a ‘Jekyll and Hyde to the weather’. He suffers, both physically and spiritually, the fluctuations in the magnetic field, the minute shifts in air pressure, the winking apertures of pearl light above the morning ocean. Now it appears we need our weather-analysts more than our shrinks. Migratory depressions, ‘lows’, like the ever-increasing columns of out-patients and inadequates wandering the streets, have their life cycles, their extended families. They age and wither. The deepest, darkest depressions, as they pass overhead, have the capacity of crushing to zero the spirits of fragile, potentially suicidal personalities. Cloud banks absorb the hurt from wounded psyches, become leaden, withhold more of the light. We infect the skies with our own despair. And are infected in return. Unsuspected weather-allergies roam the city like serial-killers. Bad will generates a sympathetic storm. A curious link develops between the great winds of 16 October 1987 and the collapsing financial markets on ‘Black Monday’, when a virus of panic sped between continents: a broad front sweeping from Tokyo to New York, infiltrating the software. The consoles went ape, ladders of cocky green figures drizzled precipitately from the screen: forests of ancient electricity crashed onto the moistened soil. A drifting interface of anxiety. The forecasters stuttered, failed. Woodland memories tumbled. Paper fortunes were lost.

And yet certain sites, surviving unnoticed, maintain their singular weather patterns: votive fires. Whenever I visit Meath Gardens, Globe Town, to pay homage to the eucalyptus tree planted for King Cole, Australian cricketer, the circuit of dull grass is dampened by a light shower. No thunderbolts, no falling frogs: a gentle moistness in the air, transpiration, lifting from the plant life as much as slanting harshly across the railway embankment. Conditions perpetuate, or replay, the atmosphere on the morning when a ceremony was enacted for King Cole’s entry into the Caterpillar Dreaming. Tower Hamlets Cemetery, that glorious wilderness, a short stroll down Globe Road, remains undisturbed, host to a weak sunstream breaking through the mossy masts of the trees. The mood there is a perpetual autumn: ancestor-worship, reflection, release.

We arrive primed to receive a specific response from these places; we insist, and the sites oblige us. But should we intend to exploit the mysteries with video-cameras, to explain away their esoteric significance, then the mood rapidly changes. The grass arena fills with dogs. The camera becomes a salt-lick to these auditioning exhibitionists. We could revamp our climate by the simple act of filming it. Video-pulses disturb natural frequencies. They are a danger to the cycle of nature. Nightly weather reports destroy the fabric they are so overtly concerned with protecting.

*

Something rather unusual is already happening in those entropic eastern districts, beyond the walls of the city, in which that most highly-strung of communities, the marginal artists, find themselves banished. A millennial twitch is on. They are reacting instinctively to climatic anomalies and apocalyptic promptings: Greenland melting, trees at their limits for the absorption of carbon dioxide, uncatalogued fungal diseases, proliferating and mutating insects, the piercing of the ozone veil. Even the language of transcription, at this point, begins to take on a Madame Blavatsky colouring. Rehearsals have begun for the opening of the seals, and the four beasts saying: ‘Come and see.’ But the artists have decided to get their retaliation in first. They have started to build arks.

There is a decayed Unitarian chapel at 49 Ball’s Pond Road, a ruin with a lively, undisclosed history. Once it was the headquarters of Oswald Mosley’s legions – from which they stepped out for acts of local provocation in defiance of long-established Hackney aliens. A tasty ruck in Ridley Road market. The kind of affair witnessed by the youthful Harold Pinter. The chapel was a popular source of neighbourhood charity, handing out free shirts (black only), sturdy boots, to anyone who would join the movement. Now ownership rights are a dubious privilege. A group of Sikh developers are finding their speculation awkward: it would cost far too much to pull the place down, curling flakes of asbestos drift among the shafts of sunlight. Punitive dues would have to be paid, specialist salvage teams and expensive equipment brought in. Nothing is resolved or defined, and so a diverse and nameless group of multi-national artists have set themselves to exploit the chaos.

The body of the chapel has been invaded by a strange and swollen parasite: an ark, large enough to house all the poll-tax court orders for the Borough of Hackney. The ribs of the boat have been constructed from the floorboards of the building itself. It is as if the chapel has woven a defensive module out of its own entrails. The internal weather is a powerful cocktail of sawdust, dead psalms and terminally soggy asbestos. This unseaworthy monster might have slid directly from the pages of a Unitarian tract abandoned on the premises: a warning inflated by generations of rising damp. The polythene skin between the boards of the craft is encrusted with threads of living material, river-map outlines, flight plans, antediluvian insects, cuneiform clues. The skin is a flapping scroll. The interior of the boat can be achieved only by traversing an Indiana Jones gangplank. This is a final embarkation. You could never cross that gangplank twice. All the risks are visible. The deluge alone is missing. But the boat has no meaning without it. If the structure is to succeed, if we are to believe it, the deluge cannot be far away.

Arks. The icon spreads throughout the East End by a curious morphic resonance; so many artists activate that possibility without any knowledge of the armadas growing up around them. In Whitechapel the sculptor, B. Catling, denied access to the funds (the time, the space) for creating his former rafts of wood and steel and ice, has produced an extraordinary book, The Stumbling Block, Its Index – in which he assembles a parallel universe of objects outlined in language: objects which, by this act of self-denial, acquire a marvellous potency. The frenzy of a remorseless present tense operates like a series of ritual instructions. In reading them, we begin to make our own versions of the sets he defines. ‘The Stumbling Block is an ark of extinction.’

An ark of extinction. The message speeds from building to building. Once the formula has been expressed, it is universal. A solitary visionary, Gavin Jones, has carried out his own municipal acts of weather magic behind the minatory walls of a rundown block in Bow. Gavin laboured to excavate and prepare an underground, war-surplus bunker: a definitively untrustworthy structure. The authorities are not keen to admit it even exists. They would like it erased from the records and filled in with rubble. But ‘blitz consciousness’ has revived in its active as well as its passive celebratory mode; along with all those heroic, free-booting associations. Gavin overlaid his concrete coffin with a secret garden, capable of blood-chilling resonances – its star exhibit an upturned herring smack, once of the Hebrides, and more recently of the Thames. A beached corpse laid to rest by a peculiarly unselective resurrectionist in the wasteground beyond Limehouse Church. Vagrants used the boat as a shelter, a shebeen. One of them died in it. Then the reformist zeal, the renovations and cosmetic surgery, eddying out from Docklands, demanded that the craft be removed.

Gavin chopped the thing in half and hauled it back to his bunker, where it now protects the entrance to the underworld. Green-pitched, divorced from the sea, it exists as an eccentric garden-shed. But when the weather does finally decide to switch to some more poetically inventive mood, and hurtle down storms and interplanetary winds mad with voices, the wreck will come into its own. It will be a wreck among wrecks, an over-rehearsed ruin. The act of placing it was always more important than the hulk itself.

We would be wise to watch these jumpy artists as closely as budgerigars were watched down a coalmine. When they topple from the perch, it may already be too late to run for the lift-shaft. The sky will be transformed into an uncontained cloud of intelligence, the dream of a brain, a brain without a shell: shapeless shapes, impossible colours, the unimaginable imagined. It only begins with the artists, the unhoused crazies beating their heads against bus-shelters, licking at invisible hailstones. It only begins on the decayed borders of the city. These are the first seismic whispers. Soon it will be everywhere, overheard conversations with no human source. Soon we will all think it. And then it will happen.