This review appeared in the Evening Standard on 16 September 2002

Brian Cathcart, Rain (Granta Books, £5.99)

Everybody talks about the weather, as the old joke goes, but nobody does anything about it. But then, as Brian Cathcart astutely points out in this enjoyable study of rain and the rained-upon, even when we’re talking about the weather, it’s not really the weather that’s on our minds. It’s just there as a spoken currency of politeness, “a sort of default mode enabling people to talk when silence is impossible and diffidence or manners block the way to a more meaningful exchange.” The famous British obsession with the weather is, he says, a bit of a myth.

Yet the great pioneers of weather science have almost all been British, and Cathcart devotes a chapter of Rain to the work of one of the greatest, a little-known Victorian rainfall statistician by the name of George James Symons. In the 1860s Symons established a kind of rainfall observers club which grew, under his supervision, into a vast network of members around the country. For forty years he published their contributions in his annual British Rainfall series, a publication which is still produced every year by the Met Office, and which is by far the longest-running rainfall record in the world.

And what the record tells us is that it is definitely getting wetter. The last two years have been among the rainiest since records began, with the rivers Ouse and Severn breaching their flood defences and causing billions of pounds worth of damage. But it’s not just that more rain is falling; the rain is of a different quality. “Don’t think I’m stupid,” as one of Cathcart’s flooded-out interviewees tells him, “but it’s really wet rain. Just step out in it and it soaks you through.” Strangely enough, the widespread belief that the country is going to the ducks is borne out by the facts: traditional British drizzle is being replaced by the all-day downpour. Our rain really is getting wetter.

The culprit, of course, is global warming and the long-term effects that it is having on our climate. The yearly pattern that we in southern England will have to get used to will be made up of shorter, hotter summers and warmer, rainier autumns and winters: the perfect recipe, as Cathcart points out, for increased flooding along our already flood-prone rivers. The implications of this are serious, especially since so many of our natural floodplains have been built over during the last half-century. Since floods are created by rainwater that cannot get away, among the most pressing tasks of the immediate future will be finding a way to ensure that our increased rainfall has somewhere to go before it turns into increased floodwater. Cathcart devotes some of the best pages of this brief but timely book to a discussion of what we might be best advised to do.

An engaging blend of history, science and current affairs, Rain has much to recommend it, even though its long-range forecast is ultimately bleak: rain later, not so good.

Richard Hamblyn



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