Week 40: Books for A(nother) Rainy Day

ceiling_of_the_sistine_chapel _genesis,_noah_7-9 _the_flood,_left_view-largeThere is a new film out about Noah. In fact, it’s called Noah, and it has Russell Crowe in it. The NorthernReader household will not be traipsing off to the cinema to see it because (a) we’ve seen a trailer and we are beginning to rather yearn for a film with the light meter turned up to penetrable – these Scandinavian dramas have a lot to answer for; (b) when we want to look at lots and lots of water we can peer through the windows (this is the only time since we moved here that the weather in the north-east has not compared favourably with that in other, lesser, counties in England) and (c) we would not knowingly part with good money to see Russell Crowe have another crack at this acting lark. Mind you, he does add to the gaiety of nations with his unswerving adherence to Speaking Very Significantly, which, never mind the unintentional hilarity of any film he adorns, must make the Crowe breakfast conversation, the check-out at Tesco (‘would you like cash-back, sir?’ ‘No. I. Would. Not.’) and a game of Snap a bit more stressful than you were expecting. I’m afraid that Gladiator still takes the Best Comedy prize in the NorthernReader household: right up there with the surprisingly Glaswegian submarine commander in Red October – Sean Connery’s ‘Okay, Anatoly’, always guaranteed to have us gurgling in the aisles).

Anyway, pulling myself together, I need to go with the flow and read about rain.

piglet_rainThe bench-mark, as it were, is as ever provided by Mr Milne, and no contemplation of flooding can be complete without reference to the useful chapter ‘In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water’ (in which you will notice that none of the animals had been daft enough to build their homes upon the floodplains). Pooh is, as you would expect, kind, thoughtful and self-effacing, and above all he does what he can to make a bad situation better. ‘We are what we do’ is one of the very few sayings I would consider having on one of those tasteful bits of washed-out board hanging artily in the downstairs loo – you know the sort of thing – and Pooh, now I come to think about it, is a good figurehead for that philosophy.

And talking of philosophy brings us to Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. There is a chance, if you are neither American nor an undergraduate studying American Literature (and we must talk about reading books under duress one of these days), that you haven’t read much Bellow, because I don’t think he’s in focus at present. He died less than ten years ago and is therefore still in the gulf of oblivion that seems to overcome recently-dead authors, even Nobel Prize-winning ones (as he was). Someone, somewhere, has declared a Decent Interval before we can take up again with previous loves, whether it’s books, Ercol furniture, or indeed old loves. Bellow stakes out some territory for himself which is midway between Graham Greene and TS Eliot, leavened by humour and salted with an American world-view. Try him, if you haven’t. And we can add two more novels to our shelf, one very familiar and the other perhaps less so. The familiar is of course Jane Eyre, which begins in the rain and sweeps us onto wet moorlands via a cataclysmic thunderstorm after The Scene in the Orchard. Less familiar might be Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest. In some ways less autobiographical than her really fabulous Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy (put them together with Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and you’ve got the Second World War pretty much covered on the literature front, with no reinforcements required), The Rain Forest is a bit over-laden with symbolism, but Manning’s writing is so vivid that she is always a pleasure to read.  Brittle and well-equipped with shoulder-chips, she cannot have been an easy person – she objected to the casting of Emma Thompson to play her lightly-disguised self in Fortunes of War on the grounds that Thompson’s feet were too big (ah, hell, that’s why I’ll be objecting to Helena Bonham-Carter playing me when they make the bio-pic, then) – Deirdre David has made a thorough job of her biography, A Woman at War, catching both Manning’s right to be considered as a major twentieth-century writer and her desperate, angry ‘pick me! Pick me!’ voice sniping from the sidelines.

Alun Lewis

Alun Lewis

But best of all, perhaps, we can have some poetry to stay indoors with. Shakespeare points out the very English fact that ‘the rain it raineth every day’ (a song he gives to Feste in Twelfth Night, and not, as Sam Mendes would irritatingly have us believe, to the Fool in King Lear). Edward Thomas and Alun Lewis both catch the mood in their great poems from each of the two world wars. The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas would be a good choice for window-seat, looking-out-at-the-rain, reading, especially for ‘Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain/ On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me; (cocoa, anyone?). Alun Lewis’s poem, ‘All Day It Has Rained’, refers to Thomas and picks up where he, and his poem, left off: ‘All day the rain has glided, wave and mist and dream,/ Drenching the gorse and heather’. A quiet and interesting man, Lewis was posted to Burma. He was found, gun in hand, with a bullet in his head, in March 1944. For poets even more than for novelists, it seems, the thought of rain is melancholic. We are left with sadness and need to stand up, to shake ourselves, to look out of the window.

But look! In the immortal words of Bob Newhart, ‘Wait a minute! It’s stopped raining!’ Hand me my Barbour; I’m going outside. If I’m lucky, I might find William Carlos Williams’   red wheel barrow.buddhistmodernpoetry

PS This month’s Walking Book Club meets at 10 o-clock on Wednesday 28 May at St Mungo’s Church, Simonburn. It’ll probably rain.rainbow

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