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Fog signals, lightning strikes and obituaries – a wander down the byways of the mainstream media

May 29, 2018

I learned a thing or two today, when ambling down the byways of the national newspaper that gets delivered to my door every morning.

The first item is that during the nineteenth century, there were devices called fog signals. These little beauties were laid on railway lines to alert train drivers to fog ahead. Fog was a problem because signals – such as those warning you to slow down on a tight corner or alerting you to workers on the line – couldn’t easily be seen.

The Victorian solution was explosive charges that were detonated when the train ran over them, thus making a large bang and presumably scaring the daylights of driver and passengers alike. You can imagine the effect of such bangs today.

The reason for this bit of history was that in my home town of Birmingham there was a factory making these mini-bombs, and on this day 150 years ago, before the widespread use of lightning conductors, the factory suffered a lightning strike. The result: boom. 43,000 devices went up. The effect was similar to an ammunition dump exploding. Four people were killed, and I imagine that train drivers had to proceed very carefully for a while afterwards.

That unfortunate incident was only the prelude to other startling information that The Times article had to offer.

In 1769, in the Italian town of Brescia, the tower of St Nazaire church was struck. In the vaults lay 100 tonnes of gunpowder. The detonation destroyed the church, killed 3000 people and reduced a sixth of the city to rubble.

But there’s more. In 1856, the church steeple of St Jean in Rhodes took a lightning strike. It too had gunpowder in the vaults. The explosion killed 4000 people.

I learned about these tragedies as I sat listening to a nearby thunderstorm. Very comforting reading. We do however, have a lightning conductor on the roof, and unless my wife is planning to graduate from burning autumn leaves to something more exciting, I don’t believe we have any stashes of explosive materials.

This illuminating article by Paul Simons, in his unmissable Weather Eye column, came a couple of days after my daughter, his partner and their firstborn spent the night in a tent somewhere in Gloucestershire. It was the night when, according to meteorologists, there were around 15,000 lightning strikes across Southern England. Apparently the three of them, blissfully unaware of the coming storm, slept right through the celestial firework display and woke the next morning surprised to find themselves in the middle of a bog. No doubt they would have slept through the Brescia explosion, too, assuming they were far enough away to avoid the falling masonry.

The article unfortunately didn’t explain why people kept gunpowder in the vaults of churches, though I’d hazard a guess that they were the driest places available, and a timely contribution of church funds probably clinched the deal.

But it does illustrate what might have happened if the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 had been successful. It would have been the Jacobean equivalent of a nuclear bomb.

Weather Eye is one of the reasons I read The Times. Simons’ column is a treasure of science, history and stories about the subject we British love above almost all things.

Another joy is the obituaries. Today I read about a marine biologist who terrified members of the Tavistock History Society by subjecting their work to the highest academic standards of peer review. She also discovered that ichthyosaurs were reddish brown, though the diligent writer leaves room for doubt by saying “attempted to discover” without explaining why.

Then there’s the cricket umpire who objected to being made to wear a blue jacket when officiating in one-day-matches alongside players who had to wear coloured pyjamas, and registered his displeasure by marching on to the pitch with a basket full of milk bottles.

Not to mention the brigadier who was Prince Philip’s private secretary. He was a former Ghurka commander who had the distinction of captaining a team in the World Elephant Polo Championship. And finally a neuroscientist who learned to walk at the age of eight months, something that will be of great interest to my daughter as she monitors her son’s development.

I’m sure that The Times has many readers who, besotted with Trump, Brexit and the collapse of civilisation as we know it, don’t have time for these relative backwaters of natural phenomena and human eccentricities.

But for me, as I develop into an ageing man of habit, they offer a comforting daily counterpoint to the sound and fury to be found on the main pages, on Twitter and on the TV news. Not only that, but an alternative to the “you’ll never guess what happened next” advertising honey pots masquerading as human interest stories to be found on Facebook and elsewhere on the web.

Having said that, there are times when serendipity and hard news coalesce. I can hardly wait to see what The Times obituary writers do with Donald Trump when he finally shuffles off. Assuming of course that he goes before I do. An outcome for which, with no malice intended towards the man himself, I profoundly hope.

From → History, Politics, Social, UK, USA

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