On Robert FitzRoy and misremembering history


(Cloudscape over the Thames, 04-05-15)

I’ve been listening to George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier on my daily walks recently. Something that he wrote reminded me of the tendency of big events to overshadow everyday history. He was, he pointed out, visiting Yorkshire in 1936 when Adolf Hitler ordered his troops into the Rhineland. “Hitler, Locarno, Fascism, and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of interest locally” he explained, “but the decision of the Football Association to stop publishing their fixtures in advance (this was an attempt to quell the Football Pools) flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury.”

This is a typical Orwellian fact – favouring a plain reality over a grand historical moment. It’s a similar story to another I heard recently from a former teacher of mine. She said that they had found an old journal under the floorboards of a family house. It turned out that it belonged to a great uncle who had died during the Second World War. This journal spanned the years 1937-9 – the terrifying years of Hitler’s rise and the spread of Fascism across Europe. Of course the journal neglected any mention of these events and instead concentrated on the uncle’s love of motor cars, which were then becoming more common in London.

If I was to take an historical lesson from these examples it’s probably that big history does not always bother ordinary people. But it’s always the big history that’s remembered, and so it was with Robert FitzRoy who features in my new book. FitzRoy is known quite widely as the captain of Charles Darwin on HMS Beagle. But in his lifetime his fame came not from his time at sea, but from his daring weather project which ended up with the first forecasts in the 1860s. For example, if you were to run a search on the old newspapers in the British Library for mentions of his name – the weather mentions would outweigh the Beagle mentions by fifty to one.

So it’s been good to give FitzRoy’s revolutionary meteorological work some attention again. I’ve written two pieces about him over the last week to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his death. One for the BBC Magazine and the other for the Independent. They both draw on research that I have done for The Weather Experiment, which is published on Thursday.

There’s more exciting news for me too. BBC Radio 4 are serialising The Weather Experiment as their Book of the Week from next Monday onwards. Thereafter I’ll be at Hay Festival on 23 May and then the brilliant new Greenwich International Book Festival on 24 May.

There’s a full list of all my upcoming events on this page.

If you’d like to hear a little more about Robert FitzRoy. Then here’s an interview that I had with the venerable Anne Diamond on BBC Radio Berkshire the other day.

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