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.

In the mid-19th century, a mild climate panic seized the Victorian chattering classes. Year on year, it seemed to be raining less than it used to; the labouring rural poor, the Times noted, were buying water by the bucket, and farmers were being forced to cart supplies over long distances. Eminent observers asked whether lakes and rivers would ever return to their former levels. Commentators speculated that industry and the growing cities were sucking more water from the countryside than could be replaced by rain. Yet nobody knew for sure how much rainfall across the country varied from year to year, because nobody was keeping count.

George James Symons, one of those energetic Victorians who combined the erudition of a scholar with the organisational abilities of a manager and the enthusiasm of an amateur collector, realised what was needed and put it in place: a countrywide network of volunteer rainfall observers. From 1859, making a daily note of rainfall became a popular pastime among hundreds of parsons, squires, doctors, gentlewomen and at least one admiral. Symons found that an obsession with rain was nothing new. In the 17th century, Richard Townley, who lived in Burnley, built a contrivance of pipes leading from his roof to his study, which enabled him to measure rainfall daily for the best part of 28 years without leaving the house.

The immediate cause of Victorian alarm, whether a return to normal wetness would restore the lakes and rivers, was answered when it plainly did. The cumulative results of Symons’s work were reassuring, too. As the rainfall records piled up it began to look as if there were dry years and wet years but that everything evened out over time. In the following decades, as the new science of meteorology matured, the emerging understanding of what causes rain (water vapour condensing on dust motes, and the resulting sub-drops attracting sufficient extra water to fall as raindrops) and the growing ability of forecasters to predict what will happen in the future (Norwegian scientists, infected by the vocabulary of the First World War, coined the phrase ‘warm front’ in 1917), gave the impression that humanity was getting a handle on the weather. While the meteorologist and mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson was serving as an ambulance driver on the Western Front, he found time to work out a way of going back to the fundamentals of weather, the physics and maths of it. His first attempt to apply these principles produced a completely inaccurate forecast, and before computers it would have taken more than 200,000 people continuously on-shift to provide a rough global weather forecast. Now that computers are here, and Britain’s meteorologists have some of the most powerful in the world, the development of Richardson’s principles means that today’s three-day forecasts are more accurate than a one-day forecast of forty years ago.

Weather and climate are not the same thing. Weather is about how much rain we might get this week, or this year. Climate is about how much rain we might get this century, or over the next few thousand years. And reassuring though the growing depth and breadth of weather recording and forecasting in Britain have been, two troubling things have become clear. Even two centuries of rainfall records are not a reliable benchmark for predicting how much rain the next century will bring; but they are informative enough to tell us that in the very recent past the climate has been changing. By itself, the fact that the year from spring 2000 to spring 2001 was the wettest ever recorded in England and Wales did not mean that the climate was changing. But put this together with longer-term data, including the work of Symons’s volunteers and the older records Symons unearthed from as far back as the 17th century, and a more meaningful pattern of change emerges. According to the Government’s UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP), winters over the last two hundred years have become much wetter relative to summers throughout the country, and a larger proportion of winter precipitation now falls on heavy rainfall days than was the case fifty years ago.

In 1984, I went to the cinema to see The Element of Crime, Lars von Trier’s first feature film. I don’t remember the story, but three things have stayed with me. Michael Elphick having sex with MeMe Lai on the bonnet of a badly damaged Volkswagen Beetle while she holds on to the (moving) windscreen wipers; a group of skinheads bungee-jumping from a crane above a shallow marsh; and the world in which these events take place, a future Northern Europe where it is perpetually dark and perpetually raining.

I remember being left with a sense of anxiety, rather than surprise, by von Trier’s vision of slow deluge in an endless night. Cathcart sees 1988 as the turning point in the perception of climate change, when, after decades of rising alarm and growing evidence of a link between carbon dioxide emissions and rising temperatures, the US climatologist James Hansen told a Senate committee: ‘The greenhouse effect has been detected and it is changing our climate now.’ But the sense that something bad was going to happen to the climate must have begun to filter down to the public earlier, in the late 1970s and early 1980s: there were fears of a new Ice Age; there were fears of a nuclear winter in the aftermath of even a limited nuclear conflict between the two blocs of the Cold War. Von Trier’s film came along when those of a more pessimistic cast of mind were already anticipating something like his wet, dark apocalypse, and without the bonnet sex or bungee-jumping. In 1979 the Clash expressed the unscientific unease of the time in ‘London Calling’: ‘The Ice Age is comin’/ The sun’s zoomin’ in/Meltdown expected/ The wheat is growin’ thin/ . . . London is drownin’/And I/Live by the river.’ All that was required were some facts. These have now been provided. Our gloom was exaggerated. Apocalypse isn’t forecast, and neither is endless night, or endless rain. But wetter winters are, and for Britain, that means floods. London’s not drowning yet, but it’s going to need a better lifebelt before the century’s out.

‘Once we were told to expect vineyards spreading north through England and restaurants spilling out onto every pavement,’ Cathcart writes, ‘but now the forecast for the 21st century is rainy.’ But as he acknowledges towards the end of the book, the two aren’t incompatible. The likelihood is that vineyards and pavement cafés will spread in warmer, drier summers, and we’ll be up to our waists in warmer, wetter winters. The UKCIP reports that the global temperature has risen by about 0.6°C since the beginning of the 20th century, with about two-thirds of this since the 1970s. The warmest year on record was 1998; 2001 was the third warmest; the 1990s were the warmest decade of the last century, and the 20th century probably the warmest century in the last millennium. By the 2080s, the average annual temperature in Britain could be between 2° and 3.5°C warmer than now. Note the word ‘average’. Two degrees might not sound very much, but it translates into a much greater range of potential extreme temperatures on any given day.

Of all the areas of Britain affected, it is the South-East of England, including London, which is likely to experience the most extreme consequences. A recent GLA report, London’s Warming, dwelt on the implications of hotter, drier summers, amplified by the heat-absorbent properties of the city’s vast expanse of tarmac and roof tiles. ‘By the 2080s, London’s summer extreme temperatures could be comparable with those of present-day New York,’ it says. In a comment which will astonish most Londoners, the report notes: ‘London is one of the driest capital cities in the world, with available water resources per head of population similar to Israel’s. Climate change could reduce the amount of water available.’

And yet it is the predicted winter consequences of climate change, rather than the summer consequences, which seem less bearable. Summers may be 20 to 40 per cent drier by the middle of this century, but winters will be 10 to 20 per cent wetter. And rain will fall in more concentrated bursts, like the rainstorm of 7 August last year, when, for half an hour, almost a millimetre of rain a minute fell in London. Many railway stations closed, and some Tube tunnels were flooded.

The South-East faces a triple peril from water. It’s sinking; sea levels are rising, increasing the risk of coastal flooding; and more intense rain means more threat from rivers. The dangers have been increased by the reckless practices of property developers and planners, who have failed to take account of the cumulative effect of multiple adjacent developments, which give rain-swollen rivers fewer and fewer places to discharge safely. Cathcart gives a powerful illustration of this in the story of Lewes, in East Sussex, which was struck by a violent flood in October 2000. After devastating Uckfield upstream, the River Ouse overwhelmed Lewes’s defences.

Harvey’s brewery was awash, as was the new Riverside surgery and the huge Nonconformist Jireh chapel, where the timber ground floor, complete with pews and pulpit, was lifted clean off its base. Tesco, Iceland and Safeway supermarkets were flooded, along with the town’s bus station, the railway station, the ambulance service headquarters, the magistrate’s court, a petrol station, the sewage works and the pumping station. The fire service headquarters, including a modern communications centre, workshops and stores, was a metre deep in water.

Of the 613 homes flooded, some were still uninhabitable a year later; some flooded businesses never reopened; more than five hundred vehicles were written off. The report into the disaster blamed Lewes’s geographical position and the unusually severe rainfall that had preceded the flood. But it also blamed the scale and nature of building on the flood-plain, which increased the number of properties at risk of flooding and worsened the damage by squeezing the waters into a smaller space. Even the flood defences, once they had failed, became an extra factor in the destruction by preventing the floodwaters from draining away. With the new humility brought on by scientific predictions of more frequent, more intense rainfall to come, the report’s authors acknowledged that simply turning Lewes into a fortress against the river would not work for ever. Improved flood defences tend to draw new development into their reassuring lee; increased development provokes a call for improved defences; the cycle could go on indefinitely, until the financial cost becomes too great, or we become wise enough to break it.

On 5 February, John Prescott announced plans to make room for another 200,000 homes in the South-East, most of them along the Thames estuary. It is to be hoped they will be built with the new thinking on floods in mind: avoid building on flood plains and, if it cannot be avoided, give floodwater plenty of places to go – set-aside fields, floodable car parks, porous pavements. Cathcart suggests adopting a system common in Germany, where lamp-posts are marked in yellow to show the highest flood levels ever reached in a neighbourhood. This would not be popular with anyone trying to sell their house, of course.

The real problem is selling rain to the British public as something dangerous: giving it the glamour of the villain. People are very reluctant to see rain this way. It’s hard enough having to put up with it without having to fear it, too, because to fear a natural phenomenon is in some way to celebrate it. There would be a simple way to describe Fort William on the tourist website www.visit-fortwilliam.co.uk. It could say proudly: ‘Welcome to Britain’s rainiest town!’ It doesn’t. It says: ‘A stunning red sunset at any time of year is often replaced by a grey, wet morning, and this in turn can quickly burst into a bright, clear, sunny day with a clarity sometimes beyond belief. After heavy rainfall, rainbows arch across mountainous skylines and lochs lie at peace in reflective mood.’ There are clues there that it might occasionally be a little damp in Fort William, but a surprising reluctance to revel in its status as the UK’s number one rainspot. What may be called for in flood-prone communities is a volunteer, recruited by some latter-day Symons, to demonise rain: not just an amateur prophet of doom but the executor of a patriotic duty, promoting Britain’s native weather as the high meteorological drama it may yet turn out to be. No doubt the community would club together to buy this volunteer a stout new anorak.