In Defence of Rain

Yesterday, I talked in class, not for the first time, about rain. It has been raining. I said. No wait. It is raining. It’s raining again. It feels as if it will never stop raining. You must allow me to apologise for the rain. And so on.

I was teaching a group of academics from Morocco, who had just arrived and were marvelling at our ludicrous non-stop weather, only one wholly inadequate umbrella between them as lunch approached and the rain showed no signs of letting up. I vainly promised them, at the end of the lesson, that it would not be raining the next day.

But later I sat at home, doing some work of my own and drying out, looking out of the window at the cars driving about in the rain, and I reminded myself that there is nothing like a bit of rain for knuckling down. If you had to learn a hundred phrasal verbs for a test the next day, you’d want it to be raining steadily outside. You might not enjoy cycling home in it, but you’d appreciate a dry spot and a cup of tea and a biscuit all the more. And so on. Rain isn’t so bad.

I was put in mind of an interview the noted English conductor Sir John Barbirolli gave towards the end of his life (and which I have posted snippets of before), in which he discusses his affection for Manchester, rain capital of the North, and his reasons for not leaving it, despite invitations from the the great orchestras of USA, Berlin, Italy and so. The great musical nerve-centres, he notices, are often in the drabbest cities – Milan, Leipzig, Manchester. The really beautiful cities of the world do not encourage work. Work, he implies, is a response to problematic circumstances, difficult contexts. It is born of struggle, not ease.

Cambridge is not a drab city by any means, but any city would have appeared drab in yesterday’s rain. One year I lived through the fog and dark and melancholy of a Venetian winter, and I don’t think I saw the sun in months. You don’t exactly get used to such conditions, but you learn to make use of them. There is no reason that a day of rain cannot be productive. Here is Barbarolli (there’s a transcript of some of it below).

You see noboby by the wildest stretch of imagination would call it a very beautiful city. But you have the strange thing that always I find the nerve centre of the highest activity generally takes place in rather drab cities, for instance the nerve-centre of music in Italy is in Milan, not in Venice, or Florence; sometimes places of extreme beauty have a little of decadence and debility about them, like the great conductors like Toscanini was never in Rome, but Milan, and Nikitch wasn’t in Berlin, but Leipzig; and the fascination of the North becomes, you feel if you achieve anything here, you’ve really achieved it.


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