My mother described the car that hit my father ( in a mercifully minor accident) as grey. He saw it as brown. It was black. “People fear different things” said my mother. What did the difference in colours mean ? “I am scared of water, your father is scared of fire.”
She certainly was scared of the weight of water and I am too. Under the sea may thrill David Attenborough but I recoil. Ancient peoples made elements into gods because they were largely beyond human control and I have no trouble with that aspect of human history.
Of course this is a matter of degree and containment. When an ember fell through the side of the fireplace and I saw it burning, quite by chance as I closed everything up for the night – you’d have been impressed at how fast I moved – I was ! I seized a flowerpot from the garden, filled it with earth, raced back in and damped down the fire. It was a freak, it was small and I could manage it. Not like those ravening bushfires in Australia, or the ones we saw in mainland Europe and California earlier in the year.
And I really felt for the woman in a Yorkshire village who spoke to camera last week – “Round here, we’re used to rolling up our sleeves and getting on with it. But the council has known this was likely for 48 hours and we haven’t even got sandbags.”
I was about 10 when my mother tapped the photograph in the paper, on her way out back to the kitchen to check on the toast. – “Poor devils !” There were pictures of flooding. “It’s the worst” she went on. I asked why. “Because even if you can save things and dry them out, they stink and you don’t want them.” And this is a long time before sewage was the feature in flooding than it is now.
You can’t choose between fire and flood – they are both out of control. But you can feel sympathy with people who thought they had made some kind of arrangements to respond and then discover it doesn’t apply. You want sandbags ? Make your own. The local authority will tell you it’s short of money and it probably is: the list of things covered by the money we pay into the pot gets longer and longer, and less and less practicable.
You could divide your horrors into the avoidable and the rest, the tolerable and the rest. It doesn’t mean I will never see a spider again but I can minimise our interaction. And I am bigger. I may never have to smell tripe cooking again, thank you heaven. But interminable rain, strong winds, devouring flame, are not in my hands.
Yes, we have made a complete mess of the world and I am torn between noticing how long it has taken the BBC to focus on this (see Seven Worlds, One Planet) and realising that it is so unremittingly grim, that we are now counterracting the disturbing visuals with interminable music, in case, God forbid, somebody should think about it.
Last week, I went to meet Snowdrop who lives in Cumbria and his train took 11 hours. The restaurant behaved exemplarily, Madame explaining “What does it matter ? We are ‘ere…” and the couple at the next table insisted I had a glass of wine with them, while I waited. (Chivalry is not only not dead, it is live and well and living in Esher.) I also found an old paperback, pristine under its plastic cover, about a man whose life was with Burmese elephants* , which emphasised how the balance between what was needed, and who could accomplish it, with the best goodwill and results all round, seemed smaller in scale and thus more applicable than some specialised tome. It is dated, very much of its time and it won’t please everybody but I have long meant to read it and so I did.
The difficulty with horror is that you are either overwhelmed by it or you block it out. To consider it or address it some way is much harder work. And too many of us only see as somebody else’s business, not ours.
*Elephant Bill by J..WillH H.Williams