Wednesday 14th December

Doctor signs on after sea-salts (10)

The pathetic fallacy has come on a long way since John Ruskin coined the term in Modern Painters. It has grown up in the school of hard knocks and bumptiously gate-crashed the party of modern literature and popular music. Novelists like Amis and Jacobson rarely bypass an inanimate object or process without attributing some quasi-human emotion or quality to it. Rain never simply rains; it exists to augment the meagre emotional vocabulary of the characters who are caught out in it (says he, staying firmly indoors as the storm batters the fences down outside). Rain defines our anger, our melancholy, our recklessness, even on this relatively temperate island.

Storytellers are like Dr Frankenstein in his laboratory, jump-starting the inanimate world, blurring the distinction between humankind and the non-human. But is this any more than an extension of their original contribution to civilisation, the invention of our very idea of humanity – character, motivation, purposeful action and free choice? Modernism has questioned all those iffy concepts but never quite dislodged them.

Characters in fiction are, by definition constructed out of words rather than flesh and blood, yet they often seem more vividly human than we do ourselves. Mary Shelley and her husband laboured long and hard to bring forth Frankenstein and, as far as we can tell, expended rather more care and effort in that enterprise than in the production and protection of their own children. Like Victor Frankenstein, Mary Shelley had to live with the monster she had created and it overshadowed much of the rest of her life thanks to theatre productions and fresh editions. Later books like The Last Man sank without trace while the monster lived on.

“Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed …” comments Andie MacDowell in the final scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral. It’s still raining, Andie. It seems to have been raining for forty days and forty nights. Storm clouds are rolling in to Oxford off the Cotswolds like a triumphal juggernaut. When the Thames is close to breaking its banks in the vicinity of Osney Island, excess water can be diverted round the west side of the island along Osney Ditch and Hogacre Ditch. But when those ditches are also full to bursting, the water has nowhere else to go. Our back garden in Swan Street, overlooking Osney Ditch, is quickly turning into a swimming pool. Soon the water will make its way in through the back door, through the walls and foundations. We have had years of practice at taking up the carpets and ensuring that all our possessions are at a safe height. It is the price we pay for living in this jerry-built-but-desirable corner of Oxford, conveniently close to the railway station and all modern amenities.

I amuse myself by compiling a PlayList of my favourite rain and flood songs. It is disappointing to discover that my favourite Who track, ‘Love Rain o’er Me’ is actually ‘Love Reign o’er Me’ so, with great reluctance I have had to discard that one, but my long list still includes the following classics:

Kate Bush: Cloudbusting
Jackson Browne: Before the Deluge
Peter Gabriel: Red Rain
Peter Gabriel: Here Comes the Flood (live version with Kate Bush)
The Carpenters: Rainy Days and Mondays
Guns’n’Roses: November Rain
Led Zeppelin: Rain Song
Led Zeppelin: When the Levee Breaks
Eurythmics: Here comes the Rain Again
Phil Collins: I Wish it would Rain Down
A-ha: Crying in the Rain
Bob Dylan: A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall
Neil Young: Like a Hurricane
Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter
Procul Harum: A Salty Dog
John Parr: St Elmo’s Fire
Prince: Purple Rain
The Doors: Riders on the Storm
ELO: Rain is Falling
Roxette: Queen of Rain
Rainbow: Catch the Rainbow

What about a running order? With the Clones’ concert in mind, I guess I’d have to start with ‘Gimme Shelter’:

The floods is threat’ning my very life today
Gimme, gimme shelter or I’m gonna fade away …

When the Stones came back to Hyde Park in 2013 they played this, perhaps their greatest song, but it was not part of the 1969 set even though it had been the opening track on Let it Bleed. Perhaps we can sneak it into our Clones in the Park set after all?

Next must come ‘A Salty Dog’, the title track from the number one album in July 1969, clearly inspired by the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and epic in every way. I picture Brian Jones lying contentedly on his pool-lilo, as this tale of shipwreck and redemption blares from his speakers. Did the Stones’ discarded guitarist contemplate the iconic album-cover with its life-belt balanced on some choppy seas? Would a life-belt have saved him? In my mind’s eye, the album-title morphs into ‘A Salty Hogg’  and the piratical figure in the middle of the life-belt is replaced by the imposing physiognomy of the ageing, gout-ridden Thomas Jefferson Hogg.

Oxford has already suffered more major flooding incidents in the 21st century than it did in the whole of the 20th. Is global warming responsible? I blame the arrival of Kate Bush in the county. That cloud-busting machine of hers has done irreparable damage to the climate. As for Wilhelm Reich, AKA Donald Sutherland, its inventor, well, you’d have thought he would have learned from his experience at the beginning of Don’t Look Now and aimed for a cloud-erasure system instead.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done … Wilhelm and his son, Peter, are not the only Reichs on my mind right now. There’s also Robert Reich, whose relationship with Bill Clinton (at Univ and thereafter) echoes that of Shelley and Hogg (and possibly also Yusupov/Rayner).

Robert Reich was the brains and the conscience behind Clinton’s first presidential administration (1993-1997). As Secretary of Labor, a key role in Clinton’s cabinet, Reich implemented social policies which could almost be described as socialist. Clinton’s economic record has stood the test of time in the sense that Time magazine named Reich one of the Ten Best Cabinet Members of the century, but he tired of the political merry-go-round and returned to academe in 1997.

Anyone who was following the US Presidential Election will have encountered Robert Reich – on TV, tweeting, FaceBooking – he is everywhere. I hang on his every word.  If I were to re-think my Bucket List now that Marie-Claire is otherwise engaged, meeting RR would be well up there.

He has some of Clinton’s charisma and gift for controversy as well as being brave and wise. Clinton first met Reich on the boat over from America in the early autumn of 1968 as all that year’s Rhodes Scholars were obliged to spend a week on the ocean wave in each other’s company, forging some sort of esprit de corps. The Rhodesmen were distributed across the Oxford college network but two, Clinton and Reich, were billeted to the same college, Univ.

Both young men were set to study PPE but did not have that much in common. Reich was the son of a respectable women’s clothing store proprietor and won a place at Dartmouth College where he graduated with an A.B summa cum laude in 1968. He had even managed to wangle a date with a formidable young lady from Wellesley College called Hillary Rodham. Bizarrely, the date seems to have involved a trip to the movies to see Blow-Up. Great minds think alike, I suppose. History does not record whether the two college kids made out in the back row. More likely, it was the usual comedy of embarrassment and misunderstandings – at any rate, the relationship stopped right there. Perhaps, at four feet ten inches tall, too small to serve as a tunnel rat in Vietnam, Reich was not quite the grooviest of boyfriends even for a girl with glasses and a dodgy haircut.

Did Reich tell Clinton this story while the SS Great Britain sailed serenely across the wide Sargasso Sea? Did it pique the young Arkansan’s interest? Did it give Clinton the incentive to pester Rodham into submission in a Yale library in 1971? – he could hardly allow himself to fail where once Reich had succeeded. And how did this shared interest in the geeky girl from Chicago affect their subsequent political partnership? Naturally, they would have us believe that it had no effect whatsoever. But why should that stop us speculating otherwise?

What we do know is that Reich was far from well on the journey over and Clinton took the chance to get to know his future classmate. He turned up in Reich’s cabin bearing a seasonings-free chicken soup in one hand and crackers in the other. No doubt this proved an economic cure and the two became firm friends.

Some months later, Reich met his wife, Clare Dalton, while both were auditioning for a play in Oxford. Reich missed out on being cast but he had a cunning plan to engineer further meetings with the young Englishwoman – he decided to direct a play of his own and cast young Clare in one of the leading roles. If he had any sense, he would have kept her well out of Clinton’s way.

Robert Reich did not support Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination this year, campaigning fiercely for Bernie Sanders instead. But he too has been favouring meteorological metaphors in the wake of the Trump coup. Today he is claiming that “a dark cloud of illegitimacy hangs over the pending presidency of Donald Trump.”  The clouds are more than dark over Osney Island and I feel the levee is going to break over my sorry life at any moment.


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