Run to the hills

James Meek

  • Rain by Brian Cathcart
    Granta, 100 pp, £5.99, September 2002, ISBN 1 86207 534 4

Rainspotting is the ultimate anorak pastime. You really need an anorak to do it. You could use an umbrella, only then it’d be difficult to write at the same time. You could sit indoors. Most trainspotters don’t have a sixth-floor window overlooking Crewe Junction, but everyone in Britain gets a corporate-box view of the weather. ‘In the past few years,’ Brian Cathcart writes on page two, ‘I have watched a lot of rain through my big window.’ As beginnings of British books about Britain go, this is unpromising. The only more daunting marker of intent would be: ‘In the past few years, I have watched a lot of boiling water in my big tea mug.’ A little further on, Cathcart writes: ‘Overall the years since 1997 or so have been wet in a way I do not remember experiencing before.’ I had the fleeting sense that I was sitting on a park bench, wearing a flat cap and a raincoat buttoned up to the neck, listening to Peter Cook.

I was drawn in, however, almost against my will. Cathcart points out that we are less interested in the weather than we are supposed to be. While British people do talk about the weather, he says, that does not mean they care about it. I think it goes further than that. We’re embarrassed by the predominant feature of our weather, our feeble rain. We don’t take pride in our folk rain scale: ‘clearing up’, ‘spitting’, ‘drizzle’, ‘raining’, ‘pouring’, ‘pissing it down’, ‘hammering down’. We don’t imagine Eskimos trying to jump-start conversations with: ‘Did you know the English have two hundred different words for rain?’ People go to Oklahoma to chase tornadoes. Siberians moan about the cold but exult in it, too. The heat and humidity of the tropics are also its attraction, but though the electric greenness of our land is due to the rain we find no joy in it except when it isn’t raining. It rains about every second day, and I’ve never seen a British postcard with a picture taken on a rainy day. Nor have I ever heard a foreigner declare that they’re taking their holidays in Britain because they can be sure of catching some great rain. We feel there is no nobility to our rain, no dignity, no beauty, none of the honour of extremity. In John Mortimer’s novel Paradise Postponed, a woman living in the country calls the doctor in a state of agitation. He arrives and asks what’s wrong.

‘That,’ she said, pointing out of the window. ‘It’s so quiet and green and it’s always raining.’

‘That’s England, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘There’s no cure for it.’

Cathcart sets himself the task of explaining why we are wrong to underestimate the power of British rain: why, though it may never inspire the immediate awe of a hurricane or a tornado or a Russian purga, it is worthy of respect and fear; and how, even as the mysterious forces of cultural evolution lead more urban Britons to wander about without umbrellas and rainwear, hoping that if they ignore the rain the rain will ignore them, climate change is turning our innocuous wetness into a nastier beast. This is not some sixty-minute work of professional TV scaring, replete with doomsaying soundbite scientists and liberal use of the bottom keys of the synthesiser to fabricate a sense of menace. It is a calm, subtly evidenced, 86-page essay (eight of the book’s 100 pages are blank, another six have engravings of clouds) with a disturbing implied conclusion: it may be time to move to higher ground.

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