From Miner’s Grandson to Lord Darroch of Kew, With a Touch of Irony

LONDON — For Kim Darroch, Britain’s former ambassador to the United States, the latest jaw-dropping revelations about President Trump’s private comments about the military and the pandemic could easily be a source of vindication or bitterness.

Vindication, because years earlier, Mr. Darroch alerted his colleagues to the unfiltered, erratic nature of the American president in a stream of frank confidential cables from Washington. Bitterness, because the leaking of those memos in 2019 ended his diplomatic career, even though his descriptions were arguably less incriminating than the statements now being attributed to Mr. Trump himself.

“Life is full of ironies, isn’t it?” Mr. Darroch said with a laugh, looking neither bitter nor vindicated as he sipped a cup of tea this week in the sun-dappled garden behind his home in London’s Richmond district.

One of those ironies is that Mr. Darroch, perhaps Britain’s most notorious casualty of the Trump era, has landed on his feet. He is now a baron, Lord Darroch of Kew, granted a peerage by Prime Minister Theresa May as compensation for falling on his sword. And he has just published a memoir, “Collateral Damage,” which recounts his downfall with sorrow and humor but little of the kiss-and-tell of Trump books on the other side of the Atlantic (his book was vetted by the government).

Regardless, Mr. Darroch, 66, insisted he was not out to settle scores — either with Mr. Trump, who called him a “very stupid guy” and said he would not deal with him after the cables were leaked, or with the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, whose refusal to defend him in a televised debate triggered his resignation.

But that doesn’t mean Mr. Darroch has let Mr. Johnson entirely off the hook. He wrote that after the news broke, Mr. Johnson, then the front-runner to succeed Mrs. May, left him multiple phone messages. When Mr. Darroch finally returned the calls, an abashed Mr. Johnson told him he didn’t understand why he had quit. The whole thing would have blown over in a few weeks.

“Boris said he was sorry if what he had said had contributed to my decision; absolutely not his intention,” Mr. Darroch wrote, in the bland language that diplomats use to characterize bumpy exchanges. “We left it at that. There was a certain tension in the atmosphere, but our parting words were amicable.”

Mr. Darroch has known Mr. Johnson since the 1990s, when the diplomat was the spokesman for Britain’s foreign secretary. Mr. Johnson was then the enfant terrible of the British press corps, filing funny but factually challenged articles for The Daily Telegraph about how Brussels bureaucrats tried to dictate the size of Italian condoms or the shape of bananas, which seeded the anti-European sentiment in Britain that Mr. Johnson later harnessed as leader of the Brexit movement.

“I got on well with him,” Mr. Darroch said, adding that if he ran into the prime minister today, “I wouldn’t say to him, ‘I want to chew all this over with you.’ I mean, it’s all gone. I’ve written my book, and you know, life is fine.”

Until Mr. Darroch’s explosive views of Mr. Trump showed up in The Mail on Sunday in July 2019, life was basically fine.

The grandson of a coal miner, who grew up in public housing, Mr. Darroch is not cut from the tailored cloth of many British diplomats. He studied zoology at Durham University, not politics at Oxford. He failed the entrance exam for the diplomatic service, joining through an alternative process known patronizingly as the “slow stream.”

From that unlikely start, Mr. Darroch rose steadily through the ranks, with an early posting in Tokyo and assignments that brought him into the inner circle of power at 10 Downing Street. He served as national security adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron, which gave him an inside track to Washington. But a stint as Britain’s top diplomatic representative to the European Union earned him the reputation in Britain’s euroskeptic press of being a Europhile, a phrase that was thrown back at him when the cables were published.

Mr. Darroch said his humble background was never an impediment in the diplomatic service and may even have helped him. “I never had the remotest sense of any kind of entitlement to being where I was, and I worked extremely hard,” he said. “Almost like ‘I can’t let them ever find out how much I’m faking it.’”

Before going to Washington in January 2016, Mr. Darroch and his wife, Vanessa, set off on a three-month road trip of the United States. A fan of films like “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces,” he hoped for a glimpse of America’s restless heart. Instead, he got an early taste of the appeal of Mr. Trump, an insurgent presidential candidate whose name kept coming up on their stops in Nashville and New Orleans, Las Vegas and Longboat Key, Fla.

By February, Mr. Darroch told his colleagues in London he believed Mr. Trump would win the Republican nomination. He also wrote that Hillary Clinton was a flawed Democratic standard-bearer, though he did not dispute the conventional wisdom that she would ultimately prevail.

“If I had listened more to those people in the Deep South, and in the Southwest, and down in Florida, I might have anticipated better what actually happened on Election Day,” Mr. Darroch said. “Like everyone, I was dazzled by the opinion polls.” He wonders whether the polls that show Joseph R. Biden Jr. with a lead over the president are similarly misleading.

Mr. Darroch’s early appreciation of Mr. Trump was not reciprocated. On the day after the election, he struggled to get a slot for Mrs. May to give the president-elect a congratulatory call. On learning that Mr. Trump had spoken to the leaders of Egypt, Turkey and Australia, Mr. Darroch called Mr. Trump’s secretary in Trump Tower in desperation and pleaded for her to put his boss through.

A few days later, Mr. Trump tweeted that Nigel Farage, the right-wing Brexit leader, would make a fine ambassador to Washington.

Britain had resolved to be solicitous toward the new president, and it fell to Mr. Darroch to lead the charm offensive. He invited White House aides like Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway to parties at his baronial residence. But Mr. Trump himself had a knack for kicking sand in British faces. After Mrs. May held a lavish dinner for him at Blenheim Palace, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, the Sun, published an interview in which he complained she had ignored his advice on Brexit.

It was in this febrile atmosphere that Mr. Darroch privately shared his views with a half-dozen senior officials in London.

“We really don’t think this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional, less unpredictable, less faction-riven, less diplomatically clumsy and inept,” he wrote in one memo. In another, he observed, “For a man who has risen to the highest office on the planet, President Trump radiates insecurity.”

Mr. Darroch said he still did not know who leaked the cables, or for what purpose, and it is the one part of the story that leaves him fuming. But he noted a difference between how his words have registered in Britain, where despite the furies of Brexit, public discourse is still generally civil, and the United States, where reports of Mr. Trump’s profanity-laced insults barely raise eyebrows anymore.

“People are still saying to me, ‘What you said was so awful. How could you say that about a president?’” he said.

For all that, the rewards of speaking plainly about an unpopular foreign leader have been substantial. Mr. Darroch is one of the very few ambassadors to the United States to be awarded a seat in the House of Lords.

Does he have Mr. Trump to thank for this?

“You have to ask Theresa May because she gave it to me,” Mr. Darroch said. “But, you know, it’s a reasonable hypothesis.”

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When Rosie Kew was a small child she was terrified of storms. Now she chases them

For most of us a storm is a reason to run and hide, but for storm chasers the urge to put themselves in nature’s way is overwhelming.

The hobbyist

When Rosie Kew was a small child she was afraid of storms. Now she chases them.

“When I see a really big storm now, I still have to admit being slightly terrified,” she said.

Cows graze quietly beneath a massive arcus, or shelf cloud.(Supplied: Rosie Kew)

“But it’s that idea that if I understand them more, then maybe I’ll feel less terrified and much more in control. Then I’ve fallen in love with them.”

To Ms Kew, storms are now beautiful.

“I think it’s the expression of, how can just water vapour and heat be so powerful and impressive, and organized and stunning all at the same time?”

She isn’t the only one. Ms Kew is part of a large and enthusiastic community of storm chasers in Australia and around the world.

Woman taking photographs
Rosie Kew chases storms around south-east Queensland and beyond.(Supplied: Rosie Kew)

“That’s actually a really nice common ground to have with people away from what your everyday is,” she said.

“It’s a shared love of the something that’s just so natural and transient.

But it isn’t as easy as just stepping outside. It takes time and skill to deliberately find a storm.

“If you predict things wrong, if you read the charts wrong, or you look at the wrong models or you completely miss the hotspot for the storms, it’s pretty disappointing and a little bit upsetting.

Rosie had planned a trip to storm chase in the US this year but it has now fallen though.(Supplied: Rosie Kew)

“My husband will attest to the fact that I get pretty angry, frustrated is probably a better a better term.”

With everyone vying to get that amazing shot there is a certain level of competition.

“I sometimes see that people go beyond safety to get that one shot and that sometimes worries me and disturbs me.

“But, for me personally, it’s just about seeing something so beautiful and actually being able to capture that,” she said.

lightning flashing through the sky
Capturing lightning takes good knowledge of your camera settings or a whole lot of luck.(Supplied: Rosie Kew)

The photographer

In Darwin, Paul Thomsen was initially interested in wildlife photography before he fell into storm chasing.

“Initially, you might get a bit of a [lightning] bolt recorded on your camera and that’s pretty cool. Then you want to get a better one. You see one that someone else gets and it inspires you,” he said.

Now he chases the thrill of getting that perfect shot and he’s in a good spot for it.

“Being in Darwin, we’re very lucky. It’s probably one of the storm capitals of the world up in the tropics here, so we get some really wild storms.”

A bearded man in a hat holding a ginormous camera.
Paul Thomsen has been photographing wildlife for 20 years and storms for 10.(Supplied: Paul Thomsen)

But he knows all about the dangers associated with storm chasing.

One afternoon he was chasing a storm through Darwin and had captured a few good bolts of lightning when he felt he was a little too close so hopped in his car.

“I just held the tripod outside the window on the ground cause the wind was sort of starting to blow so I didn’t want the camera to blow over,” he said.

“Then there was a big bolt near me somewhere. I didn’t actually see it, but I must’ve just got a little, the storm chasers call them a little feeder bolt, like just a little arc coming off the main bolt.

So he pulled the tripod through the window and called it a day.

“So yeah, a bit more careful these days.”

Camera set up in front of a storm
Paul Thomsen’s photography set-up.(Supplied: Paul Thomsen)

So does his Indigenous heritage give him an edge?

“A lot of colleagues or friends of mine do think I’m pretty good at getting close to nature and wonder how I got that shot. Maybe it’s a bit being passed on about reading behaviour and sitting quiet in the bush and sneaking up on things.

“Perhaps it helps a bit, who knows?”

The scientist

Dr Joshua Soderholm, research scientist at the Bureau of Meteorology, is on the hunt for storm data.

Back in his post-doctorate days, Dr Soderholm’s team would take a mobile radar out as close as they could to a thunderstorm to get finer imagery than they could with the standard radar.

Or they would put devices out just in front of a storm to try to land some hail measurements.

These chases have taken him as far afield as Argentina, a mecca for storm chasers as it experiences some of the most intense thunderstorms in the world.

A man stands on a trailer loaded with a weather station at Kalbar in south-east Queensland.
Joshua’s Soderholm’s focus is on capturing data not photographs.(Supplied: Nicholas Thompson)

“These additional measurements help us get a much more detailed picture of the inner workings of thunderstorms,” he said.

More recently at the bureau, his team has been looking at the capacity of these instruments to help them validate future forecasting techniques by providing a highly detailed “ground truth” to refer to.

Not content with getting data himself, Dr Soderholm has also created an app called WeatheX where you and I can input our observations of rain, hail, wind and flooding, to be used by researchers.

The young gun

“Every chaser would have seen the movie Twister,” chuckles Kyle Howard, who caught the storm chasing bug early.

“But I always wanted to see how they start, build into maturity and sadly when they end.”

Big cumulonimbus cloud
Cumulonimbus captured by Kyle while up on a storm chasing trip in the Top End.(Supplied: Kyle Howard)

Storm chasing allows him to do just that.

His passion for storms has shaped his career aspirations as well as his hobbies.

“Meteorology for me is pretty well my life,” he said.

“I’d love to be a technician for the Bureau [of Meteorology] to help maintain all their weather stations.”

He is studying to get there but, in the meantime, he is using those systems along with the satellites and models to find storms to chase.

Supercell storm swirling magnificently
A towering cumulonimbus above the cane fields.(Supplied: Rosie Kew)

“Not everything is going to be smooth as butter,” he said.

“Some things will change. We might get a storm and that might collapse quite quickly and we might see some new development somewhere else.

“Using this technology that’s where we will make our decision: ‘should we stay put or should we move elsewhere?'”

The pro

Brisbane’s Justin Noonan has made a living out of guiding storm chasing tours around the United States.

man in a broncos jersey standing triumphant with a tornado in the background
Justin Noonan storm chasing in the US.(Supplied: Justin Noonan)

“We basically start in Oklahoma or in Denver, in Colorado there, and we go up and down through the Great Plains for weeks at a time and hunt down all mother nature’s greatest bits. Whether it’s large hail or lightning, tornadic events.

“So you can really just share their excitement and your own excitement with them. When you get to see something that’s really, really cool, the look on their face is just mind blowing. It’s so good.”

Back at home, he works as a forecaster at the early warning network as well as selling photographs and footage from his chases.

Mr Noonan credits his knowledge to learning through experience and the advice of others in the weather and storm chasing community.

Massive storm cloud brews over a red dirt coastline
This is the storm “Hector” that regularly forms just north of Darwin in the afternoons during storm season.(Supplied: Paul Thomsen)

One of the groups he recommends is the Australian Severe Weather Association.

“That’s actually how I basically cut my teeth when it came to weather and storm chasing across Australia,” Mr Noonan said.

“It’s basically a bunch of like-minded people all around the country in an online forum.

“They have a general meeting once a year at a capital city and everyone gets together and shares stories and videos and forecasting tips, and it’s all made up of chasers and meteorologists.”

There are also many local groups and pages on social media which you can join spread all over the country, with helpful advice and information.

How to get started

All the community and spectacle can’t remove the fact that chasing around storms is inherently dangerous.

Upon asking about safety, each of the chasers rattled off more information than could possibly be included here.

But reaching out to the online and real-life storm chasing communities is a good way to start.

Lightning strikes at the beach at sunset.
Paul Thomsen used to use lightning triggers but found them a bit hit and miss so now he just uses a tripod and sets the camera to manual with a long exposure.(Supplied: Paul Thomsen)

There are also rules and etiquette around things like keeping out of private property to consider before heading out all gung ho.

Ms Kew said to Google some free meteorological “how to chase storms” tutorials because understanding how they worked was the best way to stay safe.

“If you don’t understand them, then you might put yourself in a place of risk,” she said.

“Being aware that lightning will drop on you and kill you, being aware that trees can fall on you, being aware that flash flooding is very dangerous, don’t drive on flooded roads.

Purple lightning strike
Mr Thomsen says works hard at getting impressive landscape compositions as well as great storm shots.(Supplied: Paul Thomsen)

“Just being aware that you’re really distracted when you’re chasing. So have somebody with you to help you chase, preferably somebody who has done it before.”

She said there were even some storm chasers who would take people out if they asked kindly, taking into account all the latest social distancing restrictions.

“Getting a bit of experience and learning from them, that’s how I’ve learned,” she said.

“I’ve learned from those who are more experienced than I am.”

But if you are stuck at home at the moment, or if all this thrilling talk of storms hasn’t distracted you from the possibility of being hit by lightning, perhaps you could start start by watching Twister.

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