Saturday, 9 June 2012

After us, the deluge

I wrote this back in 2007. It seems appropriate, in the circumstances.

I hope it’s not raining on you as you read this, but the odds aren’t good. The nicest thing to say about the summer so far is that it is not as bad as last summer, which was the wettest since records began. In his 2002 book, Rain, Brian Cathcart reflected ruefully on the sanguine view we used to have of global warming. “We were told to expect vineyards spreading north through England and restaurants spilling out on to every pavement,” he noted. “But now the forecast for the twenty-first century is rainy.” And that was before the horrors of Glastonbury 2005, when stewards paddled out in dinghies to rescue the tent people stranded in rivers of mud. Or last summer’s biblical floods in Yorkshire and the Severn Valley. The recent Pitt review on these floods warned us to expect more “extreme rainfall events”.

Rain is part of the British cultural imagination. Last Saturday afternoon I watched the Cliff Richard film, Summer Holiday, on ITV. (It was raining.) The film’s opening credits run over monochrome shots of a deserted seaside promenade in the rain, before Cliff arrives in a London bus and sunny Technicolor to drive his friends to Athens. Made in 1962, the film reflected anxieties about the rise of cheap air travel and the lure of the warm south. But there was something phlegmatic about this association of rain and the British summer: it was the small price we paid for our temperate climate, which could be used to explain everything from our placid national character to our moderate political system.

But this is not gentle, bathetic drizzle we are experiencing. This is lashing, stair-rod rain, and it’s hard to imagine it as part of the timeless rhythms of daily life. The new business of weather risk management, pioneered by the disgraced energy trader Enron, is ready to exploit the British climate as it becomes more chaotic. Hedge funds trade in weather derivatives, allowing firms to protect themselves against the financial losses incurred by bad weather. Met Office consultants provide data which tells retailers whether to stock up on suncream or umbrellas.

The weather futures market is part of a long history of trying to disenchant the natural world, to bring the rain to book. Francis Bacon, the father of the modern scientific method, argued that science would allow people eventually to control the weather, alter the pattern of the seasons and increase crop productivity. The German critic Walter Benjamin wrote that a characteristic of modernity was the “diminishing magical power of the rain”. His great project was a study of the arcades, the beautiful iron-and-glass constructions that allowed nineteenth-century Parisians to see and be seen in all weathers. He imagined a Paris of the future entirely enclosed within a “crystal canopy” to protect it from the rain.

It hasn’t quite worked out like that. True, the response of traditional British seaside resorts to the popularity of continental holidays was to create weatherproof experiences like amusement arcades and sealife centres – with mixed results. But meanwhile, the middle classes have been contrarily fashioning an alternative social season where the rain god is capricious and cruel. The rise of the summer festival, and the rediscovery of camping, are a weekend version of the back to the land movement that emerged in the late 1960s, a nomadic lifestyle drawing on pagan rituals. But we seem to be embracing the outdoors life at the moment when our climate is most ill-equipped for it. The things I remember most from my only experience of camping at a music festival are the people dressed in bin-liners and the deafening sound of rain on canvas. It seemed to me like nature’s way of telling us that we now have things called hotels.

Rain doesn’t just make these events miserable; it makes them impossible. This year’s Sunrise festival in Somerset was cancelled at the last minute after flash floods, and local tractor-owners had to tow festival-goers out of the mud. As last week’s BBC Money Programme showed, the billion-pound economy of festivals is organised around offsetting the catastrophe of a downpour, by raising money through very advanced ticket sales and corporate sponsorship. Even flower-child festival promoters have to write the rain into their business plans.

Rain makes us wet, but it is also saturated with meaning. Rain invites inactivity and gives us time to reflect on its significance. British rain used to be about the eccentric stoicism of couples sat in their cars staring at the sea through their windscreen wipers. Today’s torrents provoke more troubling thoughts. The Pitt Review advises us all to have a flood kit,” including a wind-up radio and wetwipes, and tells us to stop concreting over our front gardens, which makes the land less permeable. Worrying about the rain has become a moral imperative. Perhaps we have always obsessed about rain because we imagine, in some neurotic version of the pathetic fallacy, that it is passing comment on our national character and behaviour. This time, if rough weather turns out to be the price we pay for climate change, we may be right.

1 comment:

  1. There is a 'dog trials'- dogs doing tricks- happening as we speak in a field (quagmire)near here. The participants, human & canine huddle in small (muddy) caravans overnight. Daughter & I speculating about optimism of such events. Think it IS optimism: myth that June is fine- but rarely is in my adult memory. Gloss put on it is British fortitude etc, but surely a simple reluctance to forfeit their anticipated fun.
    Undoubtedly weather increasingly prone to extremes & probability this caused by our behaviour. Very good if depressing programme 'Surviving Progress' on BBC 4 other night, said it all really.
    Concreting gardens? Ha! I don't like it but this is laughably & predictably lame response to a rather more profound problem.
    In the circumstances my response is 'cultiver mon jardin'. Unfortunately my own small garden on clay pan (houses built on bog land) so prone to continual small floods. But I persevere..British fortitude? Or sheer bloody desperation..