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.


Yes, I admit it: mild winters had become the norm in the UK for several years. Thus we were caught out last winter, when we had a prolonged spell of snow and ice. There was lots of controversy then about a lack of preparedness by the public sector. “Lessons have been learned”, we were told. But were they?

“The weather in Britain? Changeable.”

The best old joke about the weather here is attributed to Bob Hope, born British but naturalised American: “If you don’t like the weather in Britain, just wait five minutes.” Oldies but goldies.

Not only is our weather changeable (note that I say weather, as distinct from climate; I’m not sure that we have a climate) but there are considerable local variations. Because of these two facts, I am always amazed that we devote some much broadcast time to weather forecasts, particularly on the national stations where the forecast is often short, generalised and therefore of no value. If you want to know the weather where you are, tune in to a local station, or check online. Or you could just do what I do; look out of the window. It works for me.

Cold weather in December? Who knew that could happen?

I admit it; we have had cold weather and snow much earlier this year than is normal. But here we are in December; where I live there has been very little snow but because of the freezing temperatures the roads and pavements are quite dangerous. Despite that, I have seen no evidence of salting or gritting. As I wrote in my Twitter feed, where is our usually-mighty “Elf and Safety industry (so powerful in respect of trivia, it seems to me) when we need them?

“Health and Safety? Don’t get me started”. Oh, I already have.

I live in Bristol, allegedly the second-richest city in the UK (based on GDP per capita, which might not be the best measure but so far it seems to be the only one we have); a country that’s supposed to be the sixth biggest economy in the world (again, based on GDP; not sure I care that much about that kind of international league table, but most people think it’s important). However, we can’t seem to organise the supplies and infrastructure to keep roads and pavement safe and traffic flowing if it should by chance freeze or snow in December. (who knew that could happen?)

We already know that only half of the salt that was promised for this winter has even been delivered into storage. Couldn’t we even get that right?

I don’t usually quote Jeremy Clarkson but it fits here: “How hard can it be?”

Next time?

OK, this doesn’t happen very often (in the southern half of the UK anyway) but it does happen, it generally happens in the winter, and when it does, we end up in a shambles. Then in a couple of weeks it’ll all be over and “lessons will have been learned”. Until the next time.

North-south divide

Maybe the fact that the freeze affected the south-east will be a blessing; politicians will perhaps start to get serious about planning to avoid winter transport chaos. When wintry weather only affected the north and Scotland, they could ignore it.

Now it’s time to go out for a walk and play “spot the gritting lorry”. A game for all the family.

BBC’s "PM" news magazine under fire

Listening to “Points of View” on BBC Radio 4 today, I was interested to hear that the BBC had received complaints that its “PM” programme is “dumbing down”. Admittedly the complainants, being good Radio 4 listeners, (a club of which I count myself a member) didn’t stoop to the over-used dumbing-down cliché. They were more specific. The programme, they said, seemed to be straying from its mission statement; sorry, from its purpose. The programme was “becoming light entertainment”.

“Coverage and analysis of the day’s news” is the one-line definition of “PM”; this on the BBC’s website, no less. But these correspondents / complainants were objecting to recent trivialising and unnecessarily jokey initiatives: for example sexing up the programme’s weather bulletins by adding sound-effects; and, crucially, asking listeners for ideas on how to make those same weather bulletins more memorable. In general, the charge was that the BBC was becoming more interested in what “PM’s” listeners and bloggers had to say about stories than the views of their own journalists. Didn’t the BBC have enough expert journalists to cover the stories?

I was pleased to hear this: I had noticed these trends myself and found them irritating at best, so it was good to know I was not alone. But insult was added to injury when “Points of View” wheeled out the producer of “PM” to answer the charges. Her defence, IMHO, did not really take the complaints seriously; in fact I detected a whiff of complacency. She insisted that by canvassing and broadcasting listeners’ opinions, they were expanding the range of expertise they could call on. My view on that is that yes, some of the listeners may well be expert on some topics, but by no means all of them. Who should moderate the inputs to decide which are grounded in sufficient competence to be broadcast? A BBC journalist specialising in the topic, perhaps? Then let’s hear the journalist’s views instead.

As for the memorability of weather bulletins: leaving aside the question of whether the weather (sorry!) needs to be given such prominence in a news programme (when the BBC already has plenty of dedicated weather bulletins elsewhere) the producer’s defence of the puerile stunts that had been tried, was centred on the fact that this topic had promoted lots of e-mails. My own view anyway is that the necessarily brief weather bulletins in this kind of programme are so general as to be useless in a country that’s famous for local variations. They can’t even tell us what the weather is doing now, never mind what will happen in the future: it’s bizarre to hear a presenter say, “today, it will be dry everywhere” while outside my window the rain is pouring down.

The final complaint levelled was that incidental music was creeping into what was previously an all-speech programme in a virtually all-speech channel. The offender was the introductory music to the stock exchange report “Up-shares down-shares”. A listener who was unemployed thought that the introduction of music and in fact the overall style of the piece was inappropriately jokey when talking of such serious matters as the state of the economy, especially when most of such news is uniformly bad these days. This criticism was quickly brushed off by the producer on the grounds, as far as I could tell, that they had had an e-mail (maybe more than one but I didn’t hear it) from a listener who loved the music. Why should that apparently random listener’s views matter more than those of the listener who’d lost his job and was offended by the trivialisation?

Written in sorrow more than anger, by a devotee of Radio 4.