Sham Bam Kazam!

Why is it that apparently sensible people, who sneer at horoscopes, tarot cards and general new age claptrap are prepared to tolerate the most idle and spurious form of divination known to man, the British weather forecast?

A lot of foreigners think we are obsessed with the weather in the UK. They look at the British weather and say “What are these guys on about? Their weather isn’t that extreme?”. This is perfectly true but it also misses the point. The problem with the British weather is not that it is bad, just that it is highly unpredictable.

In many parts of the world the weather can be easily and accurately predicted. In parts of the USA you will hear weather forecasts say things like:

“There will be a quarter of an inch of rain tomorrow evening starting at 5:30 and finishing by 7:00.”

This is not hubris on the part of American weather forecasters. They really can predict the weather that accurately. Britain is different. Air flows converge on the UK from several directions and interact in a complex, even chaotic, manner. The British weather is utterly unforecastable.

OK. So who are those preening, overpaid gits on the TV who presume to tell us what the weather will be? They are the employees of the Meteorological Office and they are a bunch of clowns.

Up until 1987 the UK weather forecasts were tolerable, so long as you didn’t actually expect them to be right. The forecaster gave his best guess at to the weather for the next day and nobody blamed him for being wrong half the time. In 1987 there was a hurricane. Yes, a hurricane in the UK! Not as bad as a real American hurricane but still pretty nasty. It did a lot of damage and a few people were killed. The problem for the Met Office was that the evening before the hurricane their weather forecasters predicted normal weather and even went as far as to pour scorn on rumours that there was a hurricane coming. The weather forecasts were never the same again. What traumatised the forecasters was not the hurricane itself but their sudden discovery that most UK homes had a video recorder. Over the next few days the weather forecasters were endlessly humiliated as home video of their forecasts was endlessly replayed. The weather forecasters live in fear of being caught out again. To solve this problem they follow two simple rules.

  1. Never commit to anything specific unless it is extremely obvious.
  2. Always allow for extreme weather, just in case.

To this end the archetypal UK weather forecast runs as follows:

“Tonight will see a period of prolonged darkness and the temperature will fall. A frost is possible in exposed areas. Tomorrow will be mostly dry and sunny with some scattered showers which will be heavy and prolonged in places. Rain may give way to giant hailstones in some areas. Temperatures will be between 5 and 25 Celsius but with the wind chill factor it could feel as cold as -10.”

This is completely useless. What is worse, they can’t just give the forecast quickly and bugger off. No, they build up to it with a comprehensively tedious review of the past day’s weather (hard to get that wrong!) and endless babble about isobars. Occasionally they will waste a minute of your life talking about the weather in the Caribbean or somewhere else. This gives you a good indication that the forecaster has just booked a holiday there but otherwise tells you nothing. Only after this do they deign to issue the above claptrap before moving on the the ludicrous fallacy of the “long range weather forecast”.

In fact, rigorous scientific study carried out at the University of Myarse (formerly Bumole Polytechnic) has shown that all of the following are more reliable predictors of rain than the Met Office:

  • Pine cones.
  • Mad old hags.
  • Lord Mogg.
  • An old barometer held upside down and struck vigorously with a tablespoon.
  • Looking out the window and muttering “It looks like rain.”
  • Cows lying down.
  • Mystic Meg.
  • Washing your car.
  • Wimbledon.
  • The local religious cult building a boat and filling it with animals.

So what is to be done to put this right? There is no hope of ever getting accurate weather forecasts in the UK due to the unpredictable nature of the air flows over Britain. The best we can hope for is some honesty and brevity. To this end I propose that all forecasts should be limited in length to 20 seconds and that all weather forecasters should wear the costumes of magicians, fortune tellers or other tricksters. They should predict the weather as follows:

“Sham! Bam! Kazam! I am The Mighty Pongo and I bring you weather forecast. Tonight will be cold and wet. Tomorrow will also be cold and wet. Kazam! The Mighty Pongo has spoken. I piss off now. OK?”

If that doesn’t restore confidence then it will be necessary to employ celebrity weather forecasters to give forecasting the dignity it deserves. Mohammed Al-Fyed, Neil Hamilton and Peter Mandleson are all available for pantomime and would fit the bill nicely.

Originally written in 2001. Sadly, Mandleson is no longer at a loose end.


February 21, 2001. Media, Migrated, Silly.

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