Tuesday 29 November 2016

Storms - naming, are they getting worse + storms in history and literature

Links here to my interview with Nick Piercey of BBC Radio Oxford (in two parts)



Sunday 20 November 2016

Storms in literature

Storms play an important role in a number of Shakespeare’s plays such as Macbeth and Julius Caesar, where they are harbingers of cataclysmic events, but he also uses them to bring twists to his plots – in Pericles, not once by twice. While in his last play, The Tempest, said to have been inspired by the real life adventure of the sailors who discovered Bermuda, a storm provides a way of plunging characters into a strange new world.

My new book Storm: Nature and Culture tells the story of the role played by storms in literature, as well as examining their place in art, films, religion and history.

One of the earliest uses in a novel of their ability to transport characters into a new world came from Daniel Defoe in his famous book from 1719, Robinson Crusoe, in which a shipwreck maroons the hero on a deserted island for 28 years. Defoe, incidentally, also wrote an account of England’s greatest ever storm in 1703.

In more recent literary storms, Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie (2011) sees a boy becoming one of a handful of survivors from a ship’s encounter with a waterspout – a marine tornado - and having to kill and eat his best friend, while in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001), another boy finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a hungry tiger.

There is much more on storms in literature in Storm: Nature and Culture published by Reaktion Books. Price £14.95.  ISBN 9781780236612

Friday 18 November 2016

100 years ago today - the last day of the Somme

A service of remembrance is being held today at Thiepval in northern France to commemorate the last day of the Battle of the Somme. (Though the historian Martin Gilbert in his Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War, puts the final action on November 19.) Thiepval’s Memorial to the Missing lists the names of more than 72,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found.

I wrote about the Somme in my book Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters, noting that every other battle I featured was clearly a defeat, while the Somme is sometimes seen as a victory.

The ground gained was negligible. Nowhere did the Allied line advance more than six miles, and many objectives due to be taken on the first day were never captured, nor did the Allies liberate a single town or gain a single strategically significant point. But it is said that the bloody attrition fatally drained German resources and paved the way for the Allied victory two years later.

The offensive involving British, British Empire and French soldiers had begun on 1 July, 1916. By the end of that day, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were dead, and 36,000 wounded – the worst toll for a single day in the history of the British Army.

When rotten weather and cloying mud finally brought an end to the battle, Britain and the British Empire had suffered an almost unimaginable 400,000 casualties, the French had lost about 200,000, and the Germans perhaps 450,000.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Britain's wettest 5 minutes and the world's wettest minute

On Thursday, 10 August 1893, about an inch and a quarter of rain fell on Preston in Lancashire in five minutes. This remains a record for the UK. It was the result of what that day’s Lancashire Daily Post described as a ‘terrific thunderstorm’.

The rain was so heavy you could not see across the main street, parts of the town was flooded to a depth of two feet, and a horse was reportedly drowned, while there were also said to be hailstones ‘as big as pigeon’s eggs’.

Surreally in the midst of this water, water everywhere, a wholesale greengrocer’s was set on fire when it was struck by lightning. Lancashire also holds other British rainfall records. The most to fall in 15 minutes was 2.2 inches at Bolton Hall in July 1964, and the most in 90 minutes was 4.6 inches at Dunsop Valley in August 1967.

As far as world records go, an inch and a half of rain came down in just one minute on Guadeloupe in 1970, while the island of Reunion (pictured) was subjected to an astonishing 71 and ¾ inches in 24 hours in 1966.

For the full story of Lancashire’s stormy history, see my Lancashire Evening Post story - http://www.lep.co.uk/news/environment/when-a-record-breaking-storm-hit-town-1-8237809
For more on record rainfalls worldwide, see Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion).

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Cornwall's stormy history - BBC interview

Here's an interview I did for BBC Radio Cornwall with Debbie McCrory on Monday about my new book: 'Storm: Nature and Culture' (Reaktion Books)


Or you can listen to it on this BBC link (it starts about 01 33 00)


Sunday 13 November 2016

The world's deadliest tram accident

Investigators are still trying to establish the causes of this week’s tram derailment in Croydon to the south of London, which killed 7 people and injured more than 50 others. Trams are generally a very safe form of transport but this accident has led to calls for improved safety measures such as automatic braking systems of the kind used on trains.

Probably the deadliest tram accident in history happened on the foggy morning of 12 July 1930 in Buenos Aires. Service 105 was on its way from the city of Lanus, south of Buenos Aires, to the ConstituciĆ³n station in the Argentinian capital. The driver had been with the tram company for only about two months.

On its journey the vehicle had to cross a bridge over the Riachuelo river. As it approached, the bridge had been lifted to allow a vessel to pass beneath, but the driver did not see the red light warning him not to proceed.

By the time the driver realised the bridge was up, it was too late. He tried to apply the brake, but the tram plunged into the water. The driver was one of the 56 people who lost their lives. Only 7 survived.

Saturday 12 November 2016

Storm gods rule!

In ancient religions all over the world – Greece, Rome, Iceland, India – the chief god was the god of storms, whether it was Zeus brandishing his thunderbolt, Thor with his magic hammer, or Indra riding his multi-tusked elephant.

My new book Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion) explores the fascinating stories surrounding these gods, such as how a wicked giant stole Thor’s hammer and demanded the hand of a princess in marriage as the price of its return. Thor disguised himself as the bride, and managed to escape detection at the wedding ceremony in spite of eating an ox and eight salmon. Then he grabbed the hammer and killed the giant.

The Maoris told of how the sky god made love endlessly to the earth goddess so their children could never get out of her womb. Eventually one of the young deities managed to prise them apart, but this upset the storm god Tawhirimatea who had been quite happy inside his mother, and now became an unruly presence on land and sea.

In some Slavic regions, they believed the darkness held the sun prisoner in a cell which could be opened only by lightning from the storm god, Perun, and a spring festival used to be held at which maidens would dance themselves to death in his honour. This became the inspiration for Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, while the cult 1970s British horror film, The Wicker Man, was inspired by sacrifices to the Celtic storm god, Taranis.

For much more on the role of storms in religion, see Storm: Nature and Culture by John Withington. Reaktion Books. Price £14.95.  ISBN 9781780236612.

Thursday 3 November 2016

Brexitwatch: a lesson from history - when in doubt, blame foreigners.

In 1517, resentment against people from the rest of Europe swept through London. They were supposed to be buying up all the food in the markets, a Frenchman had bullied a shopkeeper into selling him two pigeons, competition from German merchants importing furniture and leather goods was ruining local tradesmen, the Venetians were using their own galleys to bring in goods, depriving English shipowners of work, and so on and so on.

A vicar at Spitalfields denounced these interlopers from his pulpit, urging Londoners to expel them. On April 30, the London mob rioted, with thousands attacking any foreigner they could lay their hands on and burning their houses. The disorder continued into what became known as ‘Evil May Day,’ with the French ambassador having to flee his house and hide.

Henry VIII was at Richmond when the news reached him. He knew that, whatever the mob felt, foreign merchants were crucial to London’s prosperity, so he ordered the Duke of Norfolk to gather a force of 2,000 men and march on the capital without delay.

By evening, the duke was in the city. He quickly suppressed the disorder and arrested several hundred rioters. Many were charged with high treason, for stirring up hostility against states with which the king was at peace. More than a dozen were executed.