It was a late afternoon. It was the beginning of January. A new year had begun. The rain was streaming down. The sky and the land had dissolved – one into the other. It might have been a ‘watercolour’ England; or a watercolour signifying the English psyche – with all those strange geometries – those blurred edges – so deceptive and so elusive. But it wasn’t.
I was driving, through the rain, from Guildford to Farnham. Far to the west, I could see that the vengeful coal-black clouds were gradually clearing; a blood-red glow was beginning to kiss the horizon. The kiss grew more and more intense. It was firework red; it was a moment in strontium red. I was listening to a famous song on the car stereo system. It was a song that was first played on the radio in 1962. Back then it was called ‘The rain song’. It was sung by Malvina Reynolds. Then the song went away as the world took over. But I heard the song once again – in 1964. This time, though, the same song had a different title: now it was called, ‘What have they done to the rain?’ And here was the graceful Malvina singing it again. I always thought that it was a beautiful song. It begins with the words:
‘Just a little rain, falling all around
The grass lifts its head to the heavenly sound.’
Here was the enchantment that is everywhere. I love those lines: I think of the light summer rain that cools the land; I think of grass bathed in the morning dew; I think of the freshet stirred – and then the brook – and the river; I think of kingfishers and herons …
The song continues:
‘Just a little rain, just a little rain,
what have they done to the rain?’
So, then I remembered the idea of the protest song: in the early sixties there were lots of this type of song. Back then, Malvina was singing about the atmosphere. She was singing about the air that we breathe – and how it was being poisoned by nuclear fall-out – the radioactive fall-out from the testing of nuclear bombs. She wanted us to know about the nuclear rain.
The words of the song continue:
‘Just a little boy standing in the rain
The gentle rain that falls for years
And the grass is gone
The boy disappears
And rain keeps falling like helpless tears
And what have they done to the rain?‘
Her voice is haunting, simple and pure. It isn’t like the rain. Perhaps she promises an art that could make a difference. Then she sings the next verse:
‘Just a little breeze out of the sky
The leaves pat their hands as the breeze blows by
Just a little breeze with some smoke in its eye
What have they done to the rain?’
The grass disappears because it is being killed. It goes brown – then black – and then it turns to dust. Don’t touch it. The boy, too, disappears; he’s died a nuclear death. And the gentle breeze with smoke in its eye? The smoke is the deadly strontium-90 …
Outside, as the song ends, the rain is still lashing down. And I’m driving through the rain towards a blood-red strontium sky.
Note: Two strontium compounds, strontium carbonate and strontium nitrate, burn with a bright red flame and they are used in fireworks and signal flares.
Strontium-90 is a radioactive isotope of strontium produced by nuclear fission. It has a half life of 28.8 years and is a ‘radioactivity hazard.’