Saturday, 17 December 2011

Halcyon days are here again

'The Gods their shapes to winter-birds translate,
But both obnoxious to their former fate.
Their conjugal affection still is ty'd,
And still the mournful race is multiply'd:
They bill, they tread; Alcyone compress'd,
Sev'n days sits brooding on her floating nest:
A wintry queen: her sire at length is kind,
Calms ev'ry storm, and hushes ev'ry wind;
Prepares his empire for his daughter's ease,
And for his hatching nephews smooths the seas.'

from the Metamorphoses of Ovid translated by John Dryden et al

The storms of the past few weeks have blown themselves out for now, and in their place is the pellucid stillness of the approaching shortest day. The Halcyon Days are here, the name given to the weeks either side of the winter solstice when the wind dies and the sea flattens.

The Greeks of antiquity told a tale of a bird of light that made a floating nest on the sea each midwinter. The tale survives in Ovid's great poem Metamorphoses. He relates how, out of grief for her drowned husband, Alcyone threw herself into the sea but was lifted up and turned into a bird by the gods. Husband and wife, both now birds, are reunited and each winter build a nest on the sea to lay a clutch of eggs. It is fortunate that Alcyone's father, Aeolus, is the keeper of the winds and they are held in check for the seven days it takes for the eggs to hatch.

The bird of light is most usually identified as a kingfisher and this is recalled in its generic name Alcedo, a latinised form of the Greek Halcyon. It is perhaps a strange coincidence that midwinter is the time of year when kingfishers are most likely to be seen at our coasts, when the inland rivers where they usually fish may be frozen. And whatever the truth of Ovid's tale, it is certainly the case that the solstices, the pivots of our solar year, are more often than not periods of welcome tranquility in our generally unstable weather.

Halcyon Days: winter calm on the Dundee waterfront

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Facing up to cyclone Friedhelm

Cyclone Friedhelm. Image from Wiki Commons
There have been warnings for days. Meteorologists have been tracking an unusually active kink in the polar front over the north Atlantic. Such extratropical cyclones, to give them their technical name, are commonplace. They are the dominant weather feature of our islands, bringing moisture laden air, brisk westerly winds and alternating cold and warm fronts in seemingly relentless strings. They queue up over the ocean, one behind another, waiting to dump their cargo of rain on our already sodden ground. But Cyclone Friedhelm is out of the ordinary, a once-in-a-decade storm.

Watching its progress on an animated meteorological chart is a sinister experience. It appears to snag on the southern tip of Greenland before breaking loose, heading south of Iceland and on a collision course for Scotland. All the while the depression is deepening. Isobars crowd thickly in ever decreasing circles, a black hole, a malevolent eye. I tap the barometer glass for the third or fourth time this morning and the needle jolts abruptly. Atmospheric pressure has dropped by more than twenty millibars in a matter of hours. In the fridge a bottle of sparkling water looks fit to burst.
Suck. Anish Kapoor's bottomless vortex.
at Jupiter Artland

Across the country schools and offices are closing as Scotland braces itself. A steep pressure gradient means wind, great howlings of wind that rampage around this profound puncture in the atmosphere. I liken it to one of those clever donation boxes you sometimes see in museums. Roll your pennies down the shute and watch them spiral faster and faster into the vortex before being gobbled up. And then I remember Suck, a disturbing piece of landscape art by Anish Kapoor. Suck is a great funnel in the ground, but sealed behind a cage so its bottom cannot be seen, only imagined. It may go on to the centre of the Earth, or forever.

On the east coast the worst will not arrive until dusk but already hailstones drill against the windows. Outside on the street the wind slides traffic cones like striped playing pieces on a giant game board. But Friedhelm is only limbering up. By lunchtime the news is reporting a gust of 101mph on the Tay Bridge adding, almost unnecessarily, that it has been closed to all traffic. The Aonach Mor ski centre boasts 130, but the prize goes to the Cairngorm Plateau clocking in at a frightening 165mph, not quite a record but close. Colloquially the Scots are calling it Hurricane Bawbag which, if you speak any Scots, you will know is hardly a term of endearment.

I cannot get to work, there are no trains. But I venture out and the assault is instant. Looking up the clouds are moving so fast it seems as if the triple steeples of St Mary's Cathedral are tumbling. The streets are strewn with cardboard and dead umbrellas. And then a new experience for me. For the first time in my life I am quite literally swept off my feet. Turning the corner I am taken from behind by a sudden squall and find myself dumped without dignity on the wet pavement. Unhurt, I can only laugh along with witnesses at the absurdity of it and think myself fortunate not to be on Aonach Mor or the Cairngorms.

Friedhelm, or Bawbag, rages well into the evening, roaring through the bare trees and punishing pedestrians with volleys of hail. By 10pm the worst is past and I pick my way home through a debris of roof slates and snapped branches. Mercifully it seems nobody has been seriously hurt, although there have been some lucky escapes from burst rivers farther south and there is temporary misery for those left without power. Next day the story is told in sequences of dramatic pictures on internet news sites: towering waves, wrecked wind turbines and the inevitable felled trees. Cyclone Friedhelm will be a storm talked about for a long while in Scotland, at least until the next one.