Salmon in the bushes, the drive washed away… Welcome to our future
01:59 GMT, 30 December 2012
On Boxing Day, the BBC was continuing to advise travellers not to head ‘west of Taunton’ and a reporter had been embedded for days at Tiverton Parkway. Yes. Tiverton Parkway.
There were hundreds of flood and landslide warnings for the South West, and what we were hearing from our neighbours in Somerset was even less festive: the Tarr Steps near Dulverton, a medieval clapper bridge made of two-ton spans of fleshy stone as grey and crinkled as Babar’s bottom, had been whooshed downstream like chaff in the spate waters of the Barle.
At the bottom of our own valley, the Exe had burst over the two concrete bridges that connect us to the outside world and our drive washed away.
Bonkers: Rachel Johnson says that in 2012 news has dominated the news in a year she describes as 'bonkers'
The papers were promising six weeks’ worth of yet more rain in that dead time between Yule and Hootenanny… but still.
Even though the teenagers would have paid us to head to London for New Year’s Eve, even though an old lady in Exebridge had to be winched out of her cottage in her pants, clutching a side of beef, and locals were fishing salmon out of bushes, there is something to be said for sticking to your plan.
So we opened the rear of the Volvo and started stuffing presents, Christmas cake, dog, bags etc into the cavity and, in the teeth of advisories and a lashing gale, we set off from Oxfordshire to the family farm (or what my husband calls ‘the Johnson compound’) on Exmoor.
As we drove we listened to the radio, turning it up when they said anything about the weather. I often watch the news just for the weather: I do so love it that weather men and ‘girls’ always smile when it’s going to be dry and sunny, frown for rain, and reserve a special rueful look for a wet Bank Holiday.
This is because our weather forecast is, usually, soothing. We live in a green, pleasant, damp, temperate island, where chaotic, dramatic, killer weather events, such as the Lynmouth flood, happen only once in a lifetime. In fact, let us pit-stop on our perilous journey, west of Taunton, for a second to remind ourselves of that awful day.
Escape: The Johnson family headed out of Oxfordshire after the slew of flood warnings last week
Sixty years ago, after torrential rain on the moors, the Lyn, Barle and Exe rivers all overflowed. In Lynmouth, 34 people died. At our farm, the wall of water coming down the Exe valley almost carried away my grandfather in his Land Rover. He’d only been fetching bags of cement from the end of the drive, but was gone for 12 hours.
Far more dramatically, my grandmother heard howls through the storm and – clad only in her nightie – had to rescue Tinker, the old sheepdog, from drowning in the cesspit.
My grandparents had been through the war; not much fazed them. There was a flood. Livestock was saved. Bridges rebuilt. Cups of tea made. Then life went on as normal. For decades.
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It’s not like that now. The weather is the news, and the news is the weather: for the past week, it has opened and closed many bulletins. And it’s been like that, on and off, all 2012.
This year has been bonkers. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, there have been so many unprecedented, record-shattering ‘major physical events’ – from the shrinking of the sea-ice, to Hurricane Sandy, to super typhoon Bopha, to last week’s storm in the North East of the US that left 12 dead – that ‘the extremes have become normal’.
Now, I am much too timid to launch into arguments here about whether the new normal is a result of anthropogenic climate change, cyclical patterns, or a misplaced Jet Stream, because that makes the crazies come out. All I will note is that clever people, who are not openly delusional, such as Tim Palmer, the Oxford Professor in Climate Physics, and organisations from the Environment Agency to the National Trust, are now actively planning for the UK to have a more changeable and extreme climate, and leave it at that.
But this will mean that the weather will always stay at the top of the bulletin, when it comes to news, and this is a significant development.
So far, my cohort has barely been tested. Unlike our grandparents, we haven’t had a world war. Sacrifice to us has meant recycling the empties, or forgoing a skiing holiday. Our challenges are usually self-generated, such as cycling to China, or sailing the Atlantic, and when it comes to disruption, the most terrifying words many of us hear from one year to the next are ‘replacement bus service’.
When we reach the farm, the bridge is OK but the track barely passable. As we inch-bump along, it worries me to think that – whatever the cause of freak weather – if things go on like this, then generations to come will be governed not by lawmakers, but by acts of God.
Our children will have to face not just debt and unemployment but floods, droughts, storms, and random and massive disruption to their lives on a scale not so far felt in this country.
As I glance at the next generation, all three slumbering softly in their onesies in the back of the Volvo, all I can do is pray they’re up to the challenges ahead.
The beaming beacon who lit up our year
There was going to be a glistening list of my Top Ten Women of 2012 here, but I was worried that I’d lapse into sentimentality: I’d be tempted to put my mother and daughter on it and those rowers who won Gold and who blubbed, so I’ve decided not to. Lists and quizzes are frankly too common in newspapers at this time of year.
If I might just say – if it’s not too unctuous, Ma’am – you are my Number One Top Woman of 2012, for soldiering on for the last 60 years, for smiling, and for never once letting the side down. Happy New Year, Your Majesty!
Rachel's number one woman of the year is none other than Her Majesty the Queen
Another burglary adds insult to injury
I wrote last week of the theft of my son’s laptop from our kitchen. Well, we got off lightly. On Christmas Eve my younger brother was also burgled (though I must reiterate on-messagely that crime rates across the capital are nonetheless falling!).
This time the thieves broke in through the kitchen and found the pile of wrapped presents that Jo had just accumulated from a family gathering.
They rifled through them, took what they wanted, threw the ones they didn’t want into the garden, then made off in the family car. Naturally, siblings were appalled to hear of these shocking developments.
‘You mean to say they didn’t take Boris Johnson’s Spirit Of London’ cried the Mayor, name-checking his cunningly repackaged new paperback, which some of you may have read as Johnson’s Life Of London.
‘They left Winter Games’ I wailed, of my new novel. ‘I’m afraid so,’ replied Jo. ‘If it’s any consolation, they also chose not to steal House Of Fun, 20 Glorious Years In Parliament, by Simon Hoggart.’
Don’t listen to the transatlantic trolls trying to deport you for challenging the Second Amendment, or the snippy bandwagon-jumping Brits here either. You’re right about arms control. Stick to your guns.