3: Haunted by Rain

French historian Hippolyte Taine claimed that the first English music was the sound of rain on oak leaves. Britain has always been a damp island – the Roman writer Tacitus referred to its reputation for frequent mists.

Britain also has a reputation for being haunted. Many German tribes thought that the souls of the dead found a home in the West, where the sun slipped into the sea, and some named Britain as the land of the dead. Indeed, the historian Procopius describes villages on the coast facing an island called ‘Brittia’ which paid no taxes because their inhabitants were said to be summoned to carry the dead across the Channel.

Britain’s reputation for ghosts and rain were linked in the mind of Anglo-Saxons, most notably the singers who developed the poetic form of the Rainsong. In mediaeval times, there was a tradition in Sussex that the rains allowed the living and dead to communicate. It’s not much that they believed the dead returned as rain – it’s that the rain brought Earth and heaven together. Ghosts and water.

I am haunted by the shipping forecast. A song of weather in distant places, it may be the greatest poem the English have produced. I lived six months in America and a friend would send me cassettes of recent broadcasts. I used to fall asleep to those recordings, announcing storms that had taken place weeks before. Nothing else sounds so mythic to me, sums up with I think of as home, a mantra that keeps things safe.

I’ve never understood why the modern English don’t appreciate rain more. It will rain anyhow, so you might as well develop a love for it.

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