Book Review: Illustrated Weather Eye

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE LONDON, 12 January – In newspapers, the most illuminating articles often lurk in the most hidden of places. For years, discriminating readers of the Irish Times  would first turn to a short column at the back of the paper – squeezed alongside the tide tables, the comic strip and the daily chess puzzle – to digest the eloquent words of  ‘Weather Eye’, written by Brendan McWilliams, one of Ireland’s leading meteorologists. McWilliams, a true polymath whose interests spanned not just the weather and climate but included history, theatre and art, was possessed of  that rare gift of being able to communicate science in a way that was accessible and readily digestible to the general reader. For nearly 20 years his daily column  entertained readers with a  magical potpourri of ruminations on the weather – and a lot else besides. In 1795 French troops were advancing into the Netherlands. It was a very severe winter that year in northern Europe, with 15 Dutch ships anchored off the North Sea coast frozen solid in ice. “This, in turn, made possible a very strange victory indeed, unique in military annals: it allowed a small group of French cavalry to capture an entire Dutch fleet.” We move on to learn about lichens on gravestones. “Although they can endure the most extreme climatic conditions, they are very sensitive to any impurities in the air, and a thriving population of lichens is an indication that the local air is clean.” Then there are thoughts on the meteorological  characteristics of various months. “March”, says McWilliams, “is an adolescent month, always unsure of itself and full of bluff and bluster”, while April “can be a charlatan; one might almost say a hypocrite.” Brendan McWilliams became Deputy Director of Met Eireann in the late 1980s and a Director of the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, EUMETSAT, in the late 1990s. He died, at the age of 63, in 2007, so robbing the Irish Times of one of its most popular columnists. Now Anne, his widow, has produced a richly illustrated book with a selection of the scientist’s writings . Too often, weather and climate are seen as enemies to be battled against and overcome. To McWilliams they are sources of endless fascination and wonder; his columns take sheer delight in the rain, wind and temperatures – and their influence on and interconnectedness with other things. We are asked to ponder whether changes in climate and a series of bad harvests contributed to the onset of the French Revolution and how “ a small but very active depression” delayed an advance by Napoleon at Waterloo, so ensuring Wellington’s victory. Then we move on to an explanation of how bees read weather, of the meteorological reasoning behind the saying “as mad as a March hare”, the skills involved in igloo building, and a suggestion that the Little Ice Age in Europe contributed to the particular qualities of the wood used in making  Stradivarius violins. There’s even a discussion about an upsurge in global volcanic activity in the early 19th century and its influence on the novels of Jane Austen.  Emma is the most meteorological of Austen’s works by far, says McWilliams, with dramatic changes in the weather matched by equally dramatic swings in emotions. Magical stuff. Illustrated Weather Eye, by Brendan McWilliams, Gill & Macmillan, 2012