The Michael Clark Company perform a dance piece to the music of David Bowie at the Edinburgh Festival, 2009. Photo: Getty Images
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Will Self: David Bowie’s unionist plea got me thinking – it’s the English who need the Scots

The Starman implored Scotland to “stay with us”.

It would seem that David Jones, late of Brixton, south London – who is better known by his nom de guerre Bowie – has added another persona to his already capacious psychic portfolio. It wasn’t Colonel Tom, or Ziggy Stardust, or the Jean Genie, or the Thin White Duke who turned up to accept this year’s Brit Award for Best Male Artist, but a patriot who ventriloquised through a bizarre little glove puppet known as “Kate Moss”. Speaking in his Moss guise, Bowie essayed a few coolisms before signing off, “Scotland, stay with us,” so becoming the first high-profile English entertainer to wade into the independence debate.

When I first heard the news I assumed this was simply another piece of cosmic attitudinising on the part of the multiple-personality-disordered artist – even more ignobly I imagined that, having taken a gong or two from Missus Windsor, Bowie felt in some way obliged to fly her flag.

A cursory web search ended that: it transpires that Bowie turned down a CBE in 2000, and refused a knighthood a few years later. My estimation of him, which was pretty high already, went roofwards; moreover, when I came to consider what other motive he might have for supporting the Union, I recalled an anecdote told me by a Scots friend.

One summer a few years ago she was working at a small industrial heritage museum in Helensburgh. It was a quiet weekday afternoon and the place was empty, when in walked David Bowie together with a teenage boy who obviously was his son. Bowie was as calm and quiet as the museum – he chatted warmly and unaffectedly to her, then took the boy round the exhibits, talking about them in an informative but not oppressively didactic way. Then, as mysteriously as he’d arrived, he said goodbye and left.

Tales of this sort say a great deal about famous people. Clearly all of Bowie’s personae are just that: masks he puts on at will, and therefore can discard, leaving him free to be himself. Moreover, my friend’s experience suggests a few things about who Bowie really is: he’s an instinctive egalitarian and a good father, and has a keen interest in Scotland’s industrial heritage. OK, I may be stretching for that final inference, but consider this: while by no means in the back of beyond, Helensburgh is hardly on the tourist trail (although there’s a very fine Rennie Mackintosh house in town that he doubtless dropped by as well); most visitors to Glasgow zip straight over the Kincardine Bridge and head for Loch Lomond and the Highlands, where they can indulge their misty visions of Caledonian free-dom! without too many troublesome reminders of contemporary Scottish bondage, such as its people.

Speaking as someone who for the past two decades has visited Scotland at least three or four times a year, and spent a great deal of those visits in and around the former steel town of Motherwell, I cherish few illusions about the country. On the whole, I’ve considered independence to be something of a no-brainer: if ever there was a small, potentially socialistic state that could do with being detached from its deluded imperialist neighbour, it’s Scotland. Many of the Scots’ problems would be familiar to David Bowie, being largely psychological, and involving multiple personalities. The Thin White Duke Scot – puritanical, judgemental and no fun at all – is in constant conflict with the Ziggy Stardust Scot, who is wildly romantic and often wildly inebriated; and usually what escalates this conflict to a frightening pitch of despondency is that they often occupy the same skull. The sense of powerlessness that this gives rise to is evident all over Scotland, and if independence could catalyse the autonomy needed to defeat it, so I say (or at any rate said), bring it on.

None of the other interventions in the independence debate – whether by self-interested Eurocrats, British pols, or oily executives – has had the least impact on my position, but the Bowie démarche has got me thinking. Could it be that Bowie, ever laughingly gnomic, was subtly evoking a potentially savage downside to Scottish detachment? Note the form of his words: “Scotland, stay with us.”

Is this not an appeal to the Scots on behalf of the English? There may be only five million of them, while there are more than 50 million of us, but surely Bowie is right in believing that without this saltire seasoning the conservative English stodge may well become altogether inedible? The more I think about it, far from the Scots needing our crappy sterling and our grudging subsidy, it is we the English who, should they decide to exit the Union pursued by money-market bears, would have the most to lose.

And I’m not talking about tangible assets here, but spiritual capital. Like any big crowd of bullies, the English have always maintained a febrile self-esteem by picking on nearby weaklings – most obviously the Scots, who have been derided as miserly, low and cunning. Yet this was always what psychoanalysts would term “projection”, and without the Scots to denigrate, the English will be forced to confront their own ugly mugs.

On balance, it’s not surprising that Mr Jones should understand what’s happening here. After all, he’s spent a lot of time looking at himself in mirrors.

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Why is it called Storm Doris? The psychological impact of naming a storm

“Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person.”

“Oh, piss off Doris,” cried the nation in unison this morning. No, it wasn't that everyone's local cantankerous old lady had thwacked our ankles with her stick. This is a different, more aggressive Doris. Less Werther’s, more extreme weathers. Less bridge club, more bridge collapse.

This is Storm Doris.

A storm that has brought snow, rain, and furious winds up to 94mph to parts of the UK. There are severe weather warnings of wind, snow and ice across the entire country.

But the real question here is: why is it called that? And what impact does the new Met Office policy of naming storms have on us?

Why do we name storms?

Storm Doris is the latest protagonist in the Met Office’s decision to name storms, a pilot scheme introduced in winter 2015/16 now in its second year.

The scheme was introduced to draw attention to severe weather conditions in Britain, and raise awareness of how to prepare for them.

How do we name storms?

The Name our Storms initiative invites the public to suggest names for storms. You can do this by tweeting the @metoffice using the #nameourstorms hashtag and your suggestion, through its Facebook page, or by emailing them.

These names are collated along with suggestions from Met Éireann and compiled into a list. These are whittled down into 21 names, according to which were most suggested – in alphabetical order and alternating between male and female names. This is done according to the US National Hurricane Naming convention, which excludes the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z because there are thought to be too few common names beginning with these letters.

They have to be human names, which is why suggestions in this list revealed by Wired – including Apocalypse, Gnasher, Megatron, In A Teacup (or Ena Tee Cup) – were rejected. The Met Office received 10,000 submissions for the 2016/17 season. According to a spokesperson, a lot of people submit their own names.

Only storms that could have a “medium” or “high” wind impact in the UK and Ireland are named. If there are more than 21 storms in a year, then the naming system starts from Alpha and goes through the Greek alphabet.

The names for this year are: Angus (19-20 Nov ’16), Barbara (23-24 Dec 2016), Conor (25-26 Dec 2016), Doris (now), Ewan, Fleur, Gabriel, Holly, Ivor, Jacqui, Kamil, Louise, Malcolm, Natalie, Oisín, Penelope, Robert, Susan, Thomas, Valerie and Wilbert.

Why does this violent storm have the name of an elderly lady?

Doris is an incongruous name for this storm, so why was it chosen? A Met Office spokesperson says they were just at that stage in their list of names, and there’s no link between the nature of the storm and its name.

But do people send cosy names for violent weather conditions on purpose? “There’s all sorts in there,” a spokesperson tells me. “People don’t try and use cosy names as such.”

What psychological impact does naming storms have on us?

We know that giving names to objects and animals immediately gives us a human connection with them. That’s why we name things we feel close to: a pet owner names their cat, a sailor names their boat, a bore names their car. We even name our virtual assistants –from Microsoft’s Clippy to Amazon’s Alexa.

This gives us a connection beyond practicality with the thing we’ve named.

Remember the response of Walter Palmer, the guy who killed Cecil the Lion? “If I had known this lion had a name and was important to the country or a study, obviously I wouldn’t have taken it,” he said. “Nobody in our hunting party knew before or after the name of this lion.”

So how does giving a storm a name change our attitude towards it?

Evidence suggests that we take it more seriously – or at least pay closer attention. A YouGov survey following the first seven named storms in the Met Office’s scheme shows that 55 per cent of the people polled took measures to prepare for wild weather after hearing that the oncoming storm had been named.

“There was an immediate acceptance of the storm names through all media,” said Gerald Fleming, Head of Forecasting at Met Éireann, the Irish metereological service. “The severe weather messages were more clearly communicated.”

But personalising a storm can backfire. A controversial US study in 2014 by PNAC (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) claimed that hurricanes with female names lead to higher death tolls – the more “feminine” the name, like Belle or Cindy, the higher the death toll. This is not because female names are attached to more severe storms; it is reportedly because people take fewer steps to prepare for storms with names they perceive to be unintimidating or weak.

“In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave,” Sharon Shavitt, a co-author of the study, told the FT at the time. “This makes a female-named hurricane . . . seem gentler and less violent.”

Names have social connotations, and affect our subconscious. Naming a storm can raise awareness of it, but it can also affect our behaviour towards it.

What’s it like sharing a name with a deadly storm?

We should also spare a thought for the impact sharing a name with a notorious weather event can have on a person. Katrina Nicholson, a nurse who lives in Glasgow, says it was “horrible” when the 2005 hurricane – one of the fifth deadliest ever in the US – was given her name.

“It was horrible having something so destructive associated with my name. Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person,” she tells me over email. “I actually remember at the time meeting an American tourist on a boat trip in Skye and when he heard my name he immediately linked it to the storm – although he quickly felt guilty and then said it was a lovely name! I think to this day there will be many Americans who hate my name because of it.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.