“Are pirates real, Mummy?” my daughter asks out of the blue one day.
As a child I lay awake in fear at night worrying about Captain Hook, so I’m anxious to allay her fears.
“No, darling, they’re only in stories like Peter Pan.”
A few days later, the BBC Radio 4 lunchtime news scuppers my deception with a pirate attack off the coast of Somalia. Laura looks at me accusingly.
“Oh, but they’re not pirates like Captain Hook,” I try to reassure her. “And there aren’t any in this country, anyway.”
The trouble lies in the terms of reference. To Laura, all pirates have wooden legs, parrots and hook hands, not motor launches and polybags of heroin.
The same problem crops up with the weather forecast. One morning the radio alarm wakes us up with a report about a tornado in Birmingham.
“But you told me we don’t get tornados in this country!”
“Well, not big ones, like the one in The Wizard of Oz,” I explain. “In Birmingham, there won’t have been any cattle swept up into the sky or barns blown flat – it will just have seemed a bit windy.”
Despite my attempt at reassurance, Laura is on the lookout for flying houses all day.
These national reporters of news and weather have a lot to answer for. They bandy about terms that may make good radio but which mean very little to us normal human beings. And when they do come up with a clear, evocative description – such as the infamous “barbecue summer” that the weathermen have been promising us these last two years – their promises usually turn out to be false. (Or maybe weather forecasters like barbecuing on cold rainy days. I suppose it would minimise the risk of starting a forest fire.)
So for this autumn I’ve formulated some new definitions that are much more meaningful to those of us living in the Cotswolds. Not for me the Richter scale of earthquakes (I was disappointed to find a friend experiencing a 4.5 reported in Amsterdam did not feel the earth move). Nor the anthropomorphising of hurricanes. Calling the latest one Irene did nothing to make her more amendable to my American friends stockpiling groceries and bottled water in their cellars. No, I’ll be using terms of reference that relate directly to what I see when I look out of my cottage window.
First, there’s the Tetbury Wind Scale. Force 1: autumn leaves are becalmed on trees. Force 2: a breeze flaps them about a bit. Force 3: the leaves depart the tree before their time. Force 4: twigs are blown down too. Force 5: look out! Bigger sticks are falling from the sky. Force 6: wind enough to fell a whole branch. Force 7: and the rest of the tree as well – beware of them on the roads as you drive to work. Force 8: Uh oh! Westonbirt Arboretum’s had to close while they make it safe – but there could be some nice carved wooden souvenirs on sale next summer.
Then there’s the Gloucestershire Snow Scale. Force 1 and we all just think how pretty it is, especially on the fields and trees. Force 2: we can still go about our daily business provided we take it slowly. By Force 4, only the 4x4s can make it through the lanes. Force 8 and you’ll need to find a friendly farmer and borrow his tractor.
And then there’s my Cotswold Drystone Wall weather gauge. Force 1 means you’ll spot the odd little trickle of tiny stones after a mild frost, whereas Force 8 is an avalanche: whole walls tumbling down either side of every main road. This in turn is a harbinger of a spring spent admiring the day-to-day progress of the skilled and hardy stone wallers repairing it as you drive to work.
I just hope it’s not going to be another Pothole Winter.
(This post was originally written for the October 2011 edition of The Tetbury Advertiser.)