‘If there were water
And no rock
…Not the cicada
and the dry grass singing
But the sound of water over a rock…
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water’ T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland
Honestly, this is not that surprising. A fairly accurate description of the British climate might be “Rain, occasionally interrupted by seasons”. But, being a writer, I do tend to do quite a bit of staring out of the window, thinking, and it just struck me that this is the kind of rain that so rarely appears in fiction. Heavy-ish droplets, but not strong enough to qualify as a downpour. I wonder what kind of emotion this would try to evoke.
There’s quite a strict system when it comes to fictional weather. You can bet, if it is mentioned at all, that it will have some kind of relevance. I’m not suggesting that every scene in the rain will hinge upon important bloodstains being washed away, or will feature a car, slipping and sliding towards a deadly pileup. But if, for example, a character wakes up to find his house entirely wreathed in a thick, mysterious fog, the result is unlikely to be a light-hearted romantic comedy.
But at least some kinds of fictional weather are fairly easy to predict. Snowfall steers a central path between Christmas magic and harsh deprivation, depending on the time of year and the cynicism of the writer. Blazing sunshine might briefly inspire a good mood, but only if it mentioned once. If it intrudes too often, it becomes as merciless as the real thing. And trust me, as a fair-skinned redhead, I can be burned just reading a description of the desert.
But rain is an altogether different prospect. Rain is as shifting and subtle as the human heart. It can be bold and strident, a torrential downpour which traps people within and declares the supremacy of nature, making us small and insignificant. These are King Lear-like storms, and they make us want to rage against the heavens. Nature is battling against us, and we ‘poor forked animals’ must try our best to fight back.
Or, rain can soothe, as if coming after a long drought, and wash away old tensions. It is no accident that the bumbling “non-proposal” at the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral happens in a sudden cloudburst, as the main characters, hopeless as they are, escape from their former life like a baptism.
If it sticks to a thin, persistent drizzle, it is the background to a noir-style tale. Where messy allegiances and shady dealings fit neatly with the uncomfortable sensation of lugging around a permanently damp overcoat.
But if it rains firmly, it can be an image of childhood delight, creating puddles to jump in, and muddy fun for all.
And in speculative fiction, there is the added bonus of futuristic pollution, or alien climates. Rain has an extra frisson of terror if it might be loaded with industrial acids that strip skin from bone. Then, more than ever, it is godlike, an emblem of fate.
But above all, rain and sadness go together. Strangely enough, I think this is one of the most affecting things about the film Blade Runner. Without its distinctly damp neon atmosphere, it would have been an unusually sophisticated tale of half-living robots. But there is something wonderfully pathetic, in the sense of pathos, about these creatures under the rain. Bedraggled but still proud, Roy Baty manages a defiantly human sense of dignity which he could never have achieved if his life had ended safe and warm. The poignancy of his final speech, and all of the extraordinary things he has seen, is that nothing now will shelter him from the rain.
Rain is, in fact, a great equaliser. I was once reading a fairly indifferent fantasy novel, which contained a particularly insufferable, eternally perfect dragon. I found that the only way I could survive, was to picture him trying to dry out his wings after an unexpected collision with a storm cloud. Perhaps giving him a hairdryer was a step too far, but he did deserve it. Nothing is majestic when it is bedraggled.
Anyway, I’m pleased to say that as I’ve been writing this, the rain has adopted my favourite sound—a comforting steady thrum. This is a very cosy sound indeed, like the purring of an enormous cat.
That is, until you have to go out in it… And now, I’m just off to Scotland, to the Edinburgh Festival. I wonder what the weather will be like….
David Whitley is British, and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford. His first novel is The Midnight Charter, a fantasy adventure for young adults which, to his complete astonishment, has sold on five continents in thirteen languages. The first of a trilogy, it will be published in the US by Roaring Brook in September.