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Mon Dec 05 18:37:24 SAST 2016

The Big Read: Listen carefully. It's the most important news in the world

Tom Eaton | 2016-09-20 07:41:25.0
Tom Eaton
Image by: Twitter.com/TomEatonSA

My grandfather was a quiet man. An old knee injury and worsening deafness had made him withdraw to an armchair where he would read the newspaper, and although he was always glad to see his grandchildren, we sensed that we should not be too boisterous around the silent, dim house.

Still, he didn't impose on the people around him. If my wild-spirited grandmother had started a game that degenerated into giggles, my grandfather would simply retreat rather than be gruff. If he listened to the radio he would keep the volume low, pressing his good ear to it instead of turning it up. If he needed space, he got up slowly and found it.

And yet, we knew, there was a moment, once a day, when we should be absolutely silent, and when my grandfather was fully in command of the house.

It usually happened at the end of lunch, although it's possible that lunch had been planned to end at this precise moment. As my grandmother herded uneaten peas off plates, my grandfather would reach for his radio. A hiss, resolving into silence - and then three pips: the news was beginning.

The newsreaders chopped and changed, but all had the clipped diction and politely interested tone of the prewar BBC, that distinctively theatrical voice that provides the soundtrack to most of Western 20th-century history.

These days, anchor-people are trained to emote. Their faces become stern as they break bad news, and then brighten and soften when they move on to an insert about a corgi that saved a squirrel from a drain.

No such human frailty was tolerated on the BBC, or on the old SABC. The tone remained resolutely uniform, whether reporting on the Nazi invasion of Poland or the winner of the Chelsea Flower Show.

Certain words linger from that time. In the mid-1980s, most bulletins featured euphemistic accounts of killing: "Swapo terrorists" were being "ambushed" in vast numbers. There was also the Inkatha Freedom Party's leader, "Chief Mango-soothoo Boo-thill-easy", who was regularly presented as proof that black people could be taught to behave. Every so often PW Botha would drop by, explaining why they would release "Nyalsin Mundeller" as soon as he renounced communism and promised not to seduce every white woman in the land with his killer dimples.

My grandfather would listen to all of this nonsense, eyes closed, impatient. And then, at last, he'd grab the radio and turn the volume all the way up. It was time. The moment he'd been waiting for all morning. The weather report.

It would boom through the house. Low-pressure cells resounded down the corridor. Patches of cloud howled above our heads. A 30% chance of rain rattled the windows. Nobody was allowed to speak. The weather, it turned out, was the most important news in the world.

I could never understand adults' preoccupation with the weather. It seemed like a terrible waste of their freedoms. They were allowed to swear and talk about sex but instead they chatted about the impending cold front. They were allowed to watch whatever they wanted on TV but they chose to watch the weather forecast.

As I got older, it seemed increasingly bizarre. The news would sweep from geopolitics to new medical breakthroughs; plunge into human tragedies or soar alongside triumphs. And then it all ended with a short discussion of whether the wind was going to blow from the left or the right.

These days, however, I think I'm starting to feel the allure of the weather report. And I'm beginning to suspect that its appeal has almost nothing to do with the specifics of precipitation.

I don't think my grandfather wanted to know that it was going to rain the day after tomorrow: he hardly ever left the house, and the suit and hat he wore most of the time suggested that he wasn't planning to change his habits even if it did rain.

Rather, I think he was listening for the same reason that I like seeing a cold front sweep in a great arc towards Cape Town: to experience the gentle pleasure that comes from feeling very, very, small; of seeing yourself, clearly, as a glorified orang-utan searching for a good banana leaf to crouch under until the rain passes.

You've probably felt it yourself: that almost sorrowful satisfaction that comes from standing in front of a vast landscape or seascape or skyscape; of being reminded that you're a speck, and of understanding that that's OK.

Because behind that 20% chance of showers is a 100% certainty that the sun will rise, the wind will blow, and yet another band of weather will roll in off the Atlantic. An average day, any time in the past hundred-million years. And that's just fine.

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