IF YOU DON’T LIKE THE WEATHER IN BRITAIN, JUST WAIT FIVE MINUTES

My headline is not original. The phrase might or might not have been coined, but was certainly made famous, by Bob Hope. The comedian, an American citizen of course, was a native of Britain, so he was entitled to make a joke about our weather; a good joke too, IMHO.

I shan’t have a go at our weather; that would be pointless, although it sometimes seems that moaning about the subject is a national pastime. I remember many year ago, when I was running training courses in Scandinavia, one of the things people most wanted to talk about under the heading of “cross-cultural awareness” was what constitutes appropriate subjects for small-talk in Britain. This seemed to be a challenge for many Scandinavian businesspeople because there, in a business meeting, people tended (not always but generally) to get down to business immediately; they found our custom of verbal sparring through small-talk a challenge.

Well, the experts, and I am not one, say that the weather is rightly the #1 topic. That’s obvious to us but there is logic to it. Why? “Because it’s uncontroversial and it’s the same for everyone.” They might well have added that in Britain it’s worth talking about because it is so variable, as memorably pointed out by Bob Hope. If you’d been in the Sahara, on the other hand, and ventured the startling opinion that the weather was hot, it would be assumed that the sun had got to you.

No, my moan / whinge / rant is not about the weather but about the BBC’s feeling that we need to be given weather forecasts on a minute-by-minute basis, even when (and this is the key) those forecasts are, by virtue of programming time pressures, so short as to be meaningless. That’s leaving aside whether they are accurate. It’s not enough to have a full five-minute weather forecast a few times every day; useful for those who need to hear it and avoidable for the rest of us; my beef is with the assumed need to put frequent short weather forecasts into what are otherwise current affairs programmes.

Here’s an example, from BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme, this very morning. That’s the programme of which I heard Sandi Toksvig (national treasure in both Britain and her native Denmark, I think) say, while speaking at a dinner here in Bristol: “The Today programme; isn’t it wonderful? Twenty minutes of news, crammed into three hours.” Well, whatever the truth of her witty description, the producers feel it necessary to give us weather forecasts regularly throughout the show. A show, I stress, that is going out on a national channel, to a country with weather that famously fluctuates not just from minute to minute (thank you again, Bob Hope) but from town to town.

This was the forecast, at 0830 this morning, and it was typical: “Now the weather! Well, mostly dry today. Sunny spells but there will be a few showers.”

I kid you not.

If the forecast had been important to me, I would have been so frustrated. I would have been asking, “Where, exactly, will it be like that? In London? In Scotland? Here in Bristol, where I live? And when exactly will it be like that? This morning? This afternoon? Or will it be like that the whole day?”

Why bother with such a short and generalised forecast?

And while I’m about it; the language. I recently heard: “the rain eases this afternoon.” I think you’ll find, as they say, that the use of the present simple to describe a future event is supposed (for those of us who are anal about language) to be reserved for so-called timetabled events, e.g. “our train leaves at five”. Future weather does not come into the category of a timetabled event.

Despite the expensive facilities, large staff and undoubted modelling expertise of our Met Office, described in a fascinating recent article in the FT, the implication of certainty is ridiculous. Why, why, why don’t we adopt the US habit of saying things like “there is a 40% chance of precipitation”?

I can handle that. If they’d said 60% I might take an umbrella; for 40% I won’t.

Meanwhile, I go back to my usual method of weather forecasting. I look out of the window. That works for me.

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