Leo Cookman reviews a new Faber collection that critiques the relationship between Britain, weather and complaining.
Melissa Harrison, RAIN: Four Walks in English Weather (Faber, 2016)
Living in Britain, rain is an inevitable and unavoidable fact of life. Yet, far from making peace with the fact, most Britons take great delight in endlessly complaining about precipitation even when there is none. Noted nature writer and novelist Melissa Harrison seeks to explore and redress this typical English view and she succeeds admirably.
Framing the book around four chapters, each focussing on a hike in the rain, Harrison uses anecdote, historical contextual writing, poetry and prose quotation, dialect and minutely researched scientific examples to display the all pervasive quality, necessity and real beauty of nature’s most maligned process. The walks are taken out in some of the most idyllic parts of England: Wicken Fen, Shropshire, The Darent Valley and Datmoor. Her descriptions of each are microscopic and wonderfully image rich, the chapter on Darent Valley in Kent just prior to a pouring Thunderstorm is particularly immersive: “For now, though, the air may be close, the sky white rather than its recent untroubled blue, but the thunderhead is still some way off. … I lean on the wall and look down where water crowfoot sways and the mysterious silhouettes of fish drift and hold in the shallows.”
In addition to the heady Romantic view of the English countryside, Harrison provides an almost forensic perspective on the whole weather system. No slouch on her knowledge of the exact geographic processes that result in rain and follow it, many sections become clear explanations of the latin terms for various types of precipitation and the clouds that produce it. Given recent discoveries and popularisation of the Trophic Cascade found in Yellowstone National Park, we are better informed about the symbiosis between the landscape and every living thing in it but Harrison’s insightful writing allows the reader to follow the thread of the river, via the chalk in the earth, through to the insects on its surface and butterflies under leaves right up into the upper troposphere where the water crystalises forming the clouds.
Combine this with beautiful and obscure references to both poetry and older scientific texts that show a varied vocabulary for rain but also the various historical research with the limited tools available, it paints a picture of a country obsessed with precipitation in all its guises, be it mizzling or pissing it down. Most delightful for me though were Harrison’s personal anecdotal evidence of rain’s effect on the person; be that as a child, or scattering a relative’s ashes or climbing onto the roof of a flat before a thunderstorm with an old boyfriend, these are what truly conjure up the feeling of rain in the text. Pathetic fallacy is a cliche of modern times, and none more so than the tragic-moment-played-out-in-the-rain trope of cinema and literature but Harrison, by using actual instances and memories of high emotion that are heightened still by the weather at that moment, culminates in bringing a very welcome appreciation for rain’s necessity, not just in an ecological sense but in a personal one. “Bad” weather is as necessary to the environment to feed it and help it develop and grow but also to ourselves. By the end of this – admittedly rather short – book, Harrison is actively seeking out walks in the rain with her partner and her dog. She caused me to do the same.
Adverts for food often refer to their product as being good for you but only as part of a “healthy, balanced diet”. The overwhelming impression you get from this book is that the more rain is avoided or attempted to be managed the more damage it does but when allowed its moment and enjoyed on its merits it is part of a healthy and balanced ecological system and state of mental health. Without cliche but with romanticism, Harrison forces the reader to consider the odd aversion to rain that so characterizes Britain and even makes the reader change their attitude. Never will a book contribute more to the sales of wellies and kagools.
Leo Cookman is a writer living in Brighton. His poetry has been published in Poetry of Sex (Penguin Books, 2014), The Best of Manchester Poets, Black Sheep Journal, LadybeardMagazine and BlankPages Magazine, among others.