Il pleut. I must resort to French; ‘it is raining’ is too drably familiar to describe February’s pluvial onslaught. I need words of one syllable; words that can be spat; words at one remove, sufficiently alien for the deluge that has amphibianised our villages, turned our lowlands into swamplands and Ratty’s dab-dab-dabbling rivers into mad torrents. Eel pleuuurgh! And it kept on pleughing, sans mercy. Frogs and eels and webbed feet dripping slime. Il pleut, il sodding pleut, absolutement chats et chiens (I must further resort to Franglais, as my French is GCSE at best).
Through stupefying roadspray I motored to Tunbridge Wells, where it was pissing. Gutters and pipes roared all around and everywhere: you don’t notice how many there are in normal weather. Georgians used to come to Tunbridge for the water. Rain from above, and underground a chalybeate spring bubbling into the Pantiles. I wanted only to be dry. In BHS I bought a cheap hat and wore it on the walk to my meeting with a sad, heavy bear of a man in an office painted 70s brown. His cheeks and eyes drooped and every utterance he made was dragged through a sigh and a sorry shake of the head. I liked this world-weary bear and we had a pleasant chat; turns out he used to play rugby to a highish level and is incidentally the owner of one of the UK’s finest collections of cased fish. A fishing bear in a brown study. He bought everything I had to sell, bless him, and I scurried hunchbacked back to the multi-storey car park. A beggar was sitting in the stairwell. I proffered some small alms even though, incongruously, he was talking on a mobile phone. On to Canterbury, through more spray and roads pocked with watery craters.
‘Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky…’ the song came on the radio in the wake of Pete Seeger’s death. What is it, precisely, that makes me hate this song so very much? Not just the obvious: those snobbish, misanthropic, sanctimonious lyrics (And there’s doctors and lawyers, /And business executives,/And they’re all made out of ticky tacky/ And they all look just the same), could occur to anyone when they were in a foul mood, so I don’t blame their composer Malvina Reynolds as such. No, what makes me want to toddle off to some dank basement and stab sharp objects into squishy bodyparts is the picture I have in my mind of Pete Seeger with his ickle ukulele, getting to the end of the song then closing his eyes for a pensive moment before turning to Joan Sainte-Buffy Baez or whoever is sitting round the campfire to exchange a sorrowful yet wise and ultimately hopeful look, and then launching into We Shall Overcome.
Surely such a vision must also have occurred to Bob Dylan shortly before he went electric…
In the picnic area of Bristol science museum I divided a chocolate tiffin into four equal pieces. Mrs Brit, our younger daughter E and I ate our quarters. Then C, our elder daughter, came running over from where she had been drinking elaborately from the water fountain. I handed over her piece of tiffin, which, unprompted and without hesitation, she broke in half and shared with her little sister. Mrs B and I gasped so loudly that the poor girl jumped as if she’d been caught doing something wicked. You will only understand the sensations of shock, awe and pride we experienced in that moment if you have been a parent of closely-aged siblings and suddenly realised just how much of your life you spend breaking up squabbles over every teeny little thing.
A member of the small editorial team under my stewardship has quit. It was never going to work out: she wanted to be a writer. That is, she took the job gleefully because she likes reading novels and thought it would be good to be able to say that she was ‘a writer’. Then the reality of copywriting for a salary struck. Repetitive, boring, always getting edited… an unsexy craft that must be worked at, not an art at all. At its worst, writing for money is positively tawdry (imagine being a copywriter for a grubby linkbait site like Upworthy, or The Telegraph). Commerce, on the other hand, has a certain nobility. Making a thing, then getting a person to pay for that thing because it is useful to them, now that can be satisfying. It’s a pity they don’t include this information in English undergraduate courses, it would spare students a rude shock.
The railway station at Bitton is now a nostalgic attraction, with steam trains running in the holidays. There’s a café in an old carriage, good place to take the kids. Pinned to a wall is a menu for ‘Memory Lane Mondays’, aimed at the OAP market. This is what it offers:
Spam Fritters, chips and mushy peas – £5.50
Bubble and squeak, bacon and egg – £5.50
Corned beef hash & baked beans – £5.50
Chocolate sponge and peppermint sauce – £2.50
If we want to know why we’re so much fatter than previous generations, we surely need look no further. Our grandparents simply didn’t know temptation.
‘A vertical river with holes in’ was how somebody once described a heavy downpour. Possibly it was Terry Pratchett, but anyway, through one of these I doggypaddled from the Canterbury Premier Inn to the Cathedral. There was a loud, lairy crowd in for Evensong, loaded and well up for it. No, not really, there were a couple of dozen of us, and we were meek. Most were men in late middle age, falling into two types: African missionaries over to rescue English Christianity; and thin white aesthetes with beards. A young couple sat across the quire from me, but I was the only representative of my generation. Scandalous really, considering the calibre of the music served up free of charge in one of the finest buildings in the country.
Wednesday evenings are male voices, they sloshed the psalms back and forth across the aisle. A sweet droning river breaking its banks, flooding up the columns. With my eyes closed I saw wet unfolding motorways and thunderous lorries spraying. On the M2 a homicidal fool hurtled past me and nearly took out a car emerging nervously from the slip road; long and salty were my unheard complaints, but in the Cathedral’s calm I felt the residual anger flowing away. In Somerset a train ran along a track raised inches above flooded fields, just like in Spirited Away. There are floods in a few of Kazuo Ishiguro’s films; if this was one there would be giant fish swimming languorously around the transepts, gaping at the saints. When I first moved to Bristol it rained every day for months. In those days virtually every corner and cashpoint in the city had a beggar beside it. New Labour sorted that out somehow. Beggar’s Alley to Benefits Street, an improvement there, at least…. ‘Shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour,’ said Uncle Monty. ‘And here we are… we three…perhaps the last island of beauty left in the world.’ Can imagine Joan Baez saying that to Pete and Buffy round the campfire. In fact the cased fish bear man had a touch of the Uncle Monties in his weighty demeanour. We live in a kingdom of rains, where royalty comes in gangs….
…My plainsong-induced reverie was at that moment interrupted by a bedraggled man in steamed specs who crossed the quire brandishing a noisy carrier bag and sat, quite unnecessarily, in the seat right next to me. A spam fritter man if ever there was one, I thought, unChristian-like. He snuffled and made a big show of examining the Book of Common Prayer from all angles. Then abruptly he stood up and left. That was a relief, but the spell was broken. We prayed for the flood victims but my heart wasn’t in it. Lot of wannabe Catholics, these High Anglicans, when it boils down. I shook a dean’s hand at the doorway and went out into the now gentle rain to look for a pub.