The promised ‘big storm’ of Monday night was a bit of a disappointment in south London. Sure it was windy, and some bits of trees blew down and all the trains were cancelled. I know some people were more severely affected , but apocalyptic comparisons with the great storm of 1987 were a tad overdone.
There’s something about the approach of a storm that makes me long for hatches to batten down, storm anchors to weigh, shutters to nail in place. Instead, I find myself looking for appropriate literature to read, as I sit up late, watching the rain lash the windows and listening to the sound of the wind whistling through the dodgy double glazing…
Poetry first, and Ted Hughes’ Wind. This was one of the first poems I remember really loving at school, once my class of teenagers had got over the hilarious possibilities of the title. For copyright reasons, it’s not available online, so you’ll have to find the book (it’s in Selected Poems, 1957-1994). It starts with a wonderful line, ‘This house has been far out at sea all night’, which immediately gives it a strangeness, the feeling of isolation and wildness that a storm brings. There are fantastic images, ‘The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope’, a gull ‘bent like an iron bar’. I read it on Monday over breakfast, to the sound of the buffeting wind.
Storms don’t come stormier than when the wind is Wuthering over the Heights. I’m usually more Jane Eyre than Cathy Earnshaw, but something about the excitement of a storm has me opening the door, peering out into the night, looking for trouble. It wouldn’t take much to have me scampering about the moors with Heathcliff, sharing a cloak as the storm shrieks around us. Charlotte Bronte’s ability to convey both the terror of the storm, and its wild attraction, seem to me to be at the heart of the big questions asked by this novel. Do we embrace the wilderness within us, the darkness in our hearts, or keep it at bay with the domesticity of stout doors and warm fires?
‘I say,’ said Titty. ‘This is a storm.’ She wasn’t wrong. The storm scene at the end of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons is remarkable. The tents collapse, everyone gets soaked, the little island where the children are camped is cut off by waves. The children save the firewood from getting wet, rescue the parrot, slacken the bow warps on the yachts, get into their oilies and huddle together in the one remaining tent, eating chocolate till dawn. They seemed to breed them tough in those days.
For a novel that is pretty much one relentless storm, there’s The Shipping News. E.Annie Proulx is at her best when pitting the elemental forces of nature against her flawed, struggling protagonists. The weather just seems bigger over there. Quoyle’s shipwreck and hours spent fighting the waves in a stormy sea, clinging to an empty ice box before unexpected rescue make the most memorable scenes in the book.
Coming through the storm makes a good story, whatever the genre. As my friend Angie McDonald wrote in her blog about getting half-drowned in my canoe, sometimes the worst does happen. And as I noted after a stormy night in the open on Dunwich Beach, nothing beats the sunlight of a dawn the morning after the storm.
Photo: From SP Ingram’s photostream on Flickr, under CCL.