IN THE SOUTH-EAST of England, where I live, there is a hose-pipe ban in force, which means that gardeners anxiously debate exactly how gray “gray water” can be before it becomes injurious to our peonies and lettuces, and every day brings a slew of ideas about how to conserve what supplies of water we have, via water-butts and toilet hippos and shared showers. (The last is a non-starter: we are not Scandinavians.) Meanwhile, it rains, more or less heavily, more or less solidly, more or less throughout the land. Turning on the news, one sees windblown reporters standing in Tewkesbury, in the West Country, a smallish town flooded out five years ago and now underwater once again; not so badly as before, as the reporters note, standing by a wall and indicating the difference in the water-levels between then and now, but still. You sense their envy of their colleagues in the studio, warm and dry.
Understandably, a certain cognitive dissonance has sprung up. Loving this drought, people tweet, going on to detail increased sales of umbrellas and Wellington boots. Equally understandably, the water companies, who have been accused to failing to collect and store our water sensibly, become irritable and defensive, pointing out that a few weeks of crappy weather do not reverse a couple of years of below average rainfall. That particular little spat might be resolved, perhaps, by a bit of common sense: the soggy populace might feel a little less hard done to if the authorities showed a bit more delight or enterprising spirit in the opening of the heavens.
What am I imagining? Vast buckets on the corner of every junction, with Heath Robinson-style pipes transporting the rain to people’s gardens and cisterns? Well, yes, sort of. Or at least a suggestion that some good might come of the perma-drizzle, even a brief stay of execution for our perennials and salad. Instead, there is a collective suspicion of more bureaucratic flummery. Last week, I sat on an inter-city train and eavesdropped a telephone conversation between a man who appeared to be a kind of expert in soil and, one presumes, another of his ilk. Essentially, he explained, it didn’t matter now how much rain fell, if it fell on the clay soil that makes up so much of the country’s green space; the rain would simply run off the impacted clay and end up, eventually, in the sea, causing who knows how much damage on the way. It seemed quite daring chatter for an open-plan train carriage to me, who had left London early that morning in a downpour and arrived in Wales to find it under a similar cloud. By the end of his call, I had several urgent questions to put to him and I doubt I was alone. (Mine: what if you made holes in the sides of hills, like you do in a cake when you want to inject it with syrup or booze? What if we dug moats around raised areas? Why doesn’t an island flush its lavatories with salt-water?)
I suspect, also, that he wouldn’t have minded; he might have been naturally possessed of one of those voices that carries, but I caught a certain in-the-know swagger to the whole exchange. What did we know, we who toil in matters so far removed from aquifers and water-tables and soil composition? Merely that when leaves clog the train lines or the wrong kind of snow causes our motorways and airports to grind to a halt our ignorance renders us helpless and foolish-seeming.
And subject, as now, to a pathetic fallacy. The weather suits the mood, just as it did in 1976, when there was a proper drought, of the non-raining kind, and the parched earth split to form an antediluvian, elephant-skin landscape. Then, as now, austerity was in the air; then, however, we had punk to make it feel as though the country’s latent aggression did not need to remain tightly furled for fear of what it could unleash.
Last week, during the local council elections held in most places and the mayoral contest in the capital, it wasn’t quite aggression that was abroad, more a chippy resignation – as though the two fingers raised to the Coalition government barely had enough energy to stay in the air. In London, there was talk of a protest vote that would reflect the electorate’s disillusion with both would-be mayoral front-runners: the floppy-haired toff incumbent, Boris Johnson, whose bumbling demeanour surely masks a strain of clubbable ruthlessness; and Ken Livingstone, in whom a residual distrust seemed to gather pace exponentially. (“Tell the truth,” said someone to me, when I advanced this point of view. “Boris looks like a fucking rock star.” Not quite, but I knew what he meant.) All they appeared to do was squabble furiously with one another, allowing a tiny vacuum into which an independent candidate named Siobhan Benita, a former civil servant, briefly inserted herself. I voted for her, actually, because I couldn’t bear to vote Conservative and I couldn’t bear to vote for Ken, which caused another friend to remark: “You know her slogan’s ‘A mum for London,’ don’t you?” I didn’t, and chided myself accordingly.
The contest was closer than anyone had anticipated, and its result took a long time to emerge because, in one far-flung borough, a couple of ballot boxes had been overlooked and in another there had been a power-cut and the sprinklers had gone off. As we waited, pundits jockeyed to fill the dead air with insight and filled it instead with vacuity. At a low point, someone or other compared Ken or Boris and probably both to Marmite, the salty, viscous brown spread that, according to its most successful advertising campaign, you either love or hate. It would no doubt be over-reading the signifiers to suggest that, in that moment, England revealed itself by likening a political contest to tea-time in the nursery; by reducing an ideological dilemma to a question of toast. A stretch too far, indeed, to wonder if we might quite happily pass a summer grumbling about the weather and the powerlessness of our masters to improve it.