Upon the evening of Friday, Nov. 26, 1703, the wind was very high, but about midnight it broke out with a more than wonted violence, and so continued till near break of day. It ended a N.W. wind, though about 3 in the morning it was at S.W. The loudest cracks I observed of it, were somewhat before 4 of the clock; we had here the common calamity of houses shattered and trees thrown down.
So wrote Mr Thomas Chest a local priest in the town of Chepstow (situated in the south of Wales). He is describing the Great Storm as it was known for hundreds of years and nothing as bad was experienced again in the United Kingdom. That was at least until October 1987 when a savage storm devastated the south east corner of England.
Although in world terms what we experienced on both occasions was ‘peanuts' (on a very small scale), it is, you must remember, a feature of the British Isles that the weather remains fairly stable. We do get in a terrible state of course if there is too much snow, too much rain or too much wind. All you can say is that the weather changes a lot and so remains a wonderful topic of conversation. Anyhow back in 1987 15 million trees were uprooted and complete forests reduced to a tenth of their original size. People lying in bed half asleep in the early hours of the 16th October were somewhat surprised that they could see the sky from their bedroom and soon realised that their roof had been removed by the wind. On television the previous night a certain Mr Michael Fish was giving the weather forecast and commented at the end of his broadcast: 'by the way a lady has just rung in to ask if there is going to be a hurricane tonight ... big smiles enveloped the Fish face as he concluded by adding ‘there is certainly not.' With that we all had a good laugh and toddled off to bed only to be woken a few hours later by the sound of a furious storm. Ever since that day whenever the redoubtable Mr Fish's name comes up, everybody falls about laughing. Over the last twenty years he has given various explanations for the ‘mistake'. It was the fault of his boss, the computers used were giving the wrong information and other technical reasons. Mind you, as the years go by, he has plenty of time to think up new excuses but somehow he just can't rid himself of this picture of making himself look a complete fool on national television. Poor Michael! By now, I hope, you'll probably see why I have chosen the title I did for this piece: Give a dog a bad name. It means once someone has gained a reputation for doing something foolish or silly, it is impossible for them to free themselves from it, try as hard as they may.
But then far more important people than Michael have historically suffered a similar fate. It's happened to no fewer than three kings of England, a long, long time ago of course.
King Alfred (849-899) is generally regarded as an enlightened individual. He was highly respected as a warrior, a social reformer, and an educationist. Above all he succeeded in promoting the English language. Although the Romans had decided to withdraw from Britain in 400AD, Latin still continued as the official language and English had languished a bit. Alfred used to spend his free time translating Latin into English and did an excellent PR (public relations) for English. But it wasn't roses all the way for young Alfred. The Danes were a constant thorn in his flesh (major problem) and although he managed to defeat most of their armies, there was one leader, Ragnar Hairybreeks, (with a name like that you'd have to be unpleasant, wouldn't you?) who was particularly ferocious and Alfred had to go into hiding to escape from him, disguised as a peasant. One day, thoroughly exhausted, he knocked on the door of an old woman's cottage and asked if he could rest the night there. The woman was blissfully unaware that he was the King and agreed provided he kept an eye on her cakes while she popped out to do some shopping. Unfortunately he was so tired, he fell asleep and the cakes were burnt to cinders. You can understand why the old lady on seeing the ruined cakes kicked him out of her cottage. Alfred then, despite his brilliant CV is always remembered just for the cake disaster.
Our next king is Ethelred (968-1016). Things started to go wrong with Ethelred at the very beginning. He disgraced himself at his christening by defecating at the font. This was regarded as a bad omen and it wasn't too pleasant for those surrounding the font, either. Throughout history he has been known as Ethelred the Unready, a title he was never able to rid himself of and that's how he has been labelled for close on a thousand years now. There were of course extenuating circumstances but nobody ever remembers that. After all you have to remember that he was only 10 years old when he became king so it's no wonder the poor chap wasn't ready! He wasn't like his predecessors, a bellicose sort of person and when the Swein Forkbeard Vikings continued to attack England, he took the easy way out and offered them money and board and lodging as long as they stopped fighting. Maybe there's a lesson there.
Finally we come to our last example of someone who got a bad name -- King Canute (995-1035). Now he's more in the Fish mould because he did get carried away. His followers thought he was the best thing since sliced bread, what you might call the bees knees or someone who could do absolutely no wrong. After a while Canute thought that maybe they were right and that he could even control the waves of the sea. He persuaded them to sit him in a chair on the seashore. He then addressed the waves and called out: Go back! Go back! But of course they didn't and he ended up with seawater on his shoes and egg on his face (looking silly). Whatever he did as king doesn't matter. All we now remember is this half demented man shouting at the waves.
By the way I've just taken a break from writing this and watched some television and believe it or not I've just seen the venerable Fish on TV in one of those chat shows. He's just written a book on storms. He's still smiling and totally convinced that the world has done him wrong. Now twenty years on he's come up the latest explanation: he wasn't even talking about Britain in that infamous broadcast. He was actually, he says, talking about Florida. Now that really does take the biscuit (goes too far). When the programme finished, I stayed to watch the news, which ended as usual with the weather forecast. The young woman smiled sweetly at us on the screen (it's like a sort of insurance policy this smiling -- just in case they get it wrong) and then she promised that for the next few days we were all going to have some fine autumn sun. Now then, let me think, where exactly did I leave my umbrella?
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