A Personal History of Drenchings

/ by John Stubbs

I was fortunate enough to miss most of the short but violent reign of “Lucifer,” the heatwave that struck so much of Europe this summer. As Continental temperatures rose into the forties, I was visiting my parents in Plymouth, in the far south-west reaches of England, where the days were changeable and blustery. From natural sympathy, however, not to mention my somewhat humid surroundings, my thoughts turned to rain. More specifically, I reflected a little on some of the great drenchings I have undergone in my time.

Let us first be clear on one thing: The difference between a drenching and a routine wetting. A drenching is much, much greater in degree, in speed and in intensity, than the long slow downpour that gets through all your seams, on the journey home from work. You will see that, in agriculture, the word has unpleasant associations: It means to force-feed an animal with liquid medicine, usually to rid it of worms. Outside the farm, in general use, a drenching is the purest of natural ablutions: When what should seem at least a ton of water hits you in seconds and leaves you so plastered that it is useless to try to keep dry. A drenching is when your clothes are as heavy as lead, and so thoroughly saturated that the rain simply bounces off them. A drenching is when you are one evolutionary instant away from becoming an amphibious life-form.

Although Cambridge is located in one of the driest parts of England – which might not be saying much, admittedly – as a graduate student there, I discovered it is perfect territory for quintessential drenchings of the kind defined above. One day in May, I left my college house on the outskirts of town to buy some milk and bread at the mini-market, a half-mile away. I was a quarter of a mile from my goal, more or less, when a huge front rolled in off the flatlands of Norfolk and emptied itself on my neighborhood. Sopping wet, I walked home beneath a clearing sky; leaves, glass and asphalt glistened blindingly in the returning sun. Back in my room, I changed everything except my shoes – I had only one pair—and so set off at the second attempt, with fresh socks squeaking in sodden Doc Martens. This time I was about an eighth of a mile from the shop, when another cloud formation, with all the power of Zeus, rose up and pelted the land again. There was nothing to do but squelch onwards.

For years now, I have lived in Ljubljana, where I work as an English teacher. Here the Balkan-Alpine elements have given me a good few serious rinsings: Notably one afternoon as I returned to work for our school’s monthly “open hour,” which provides parents with a formal opportunity to visit staff and complain about their children’s grades. After a 500-meter walk from a nearby coffee bar, I crawled into school, like a shipwrecked mariner. The headmaster, a steadfast, taciturn man, raised his eyebrows on seeing me. He suggested that I change, and sent me to the P.E. department in search of spare kit. A kindly colleague there lent me one of her tracksuits. My borrowed sportswear attracted a few comments; but my own clothes would have prompted more for their eel-like consistency.

Nothing in my personal history of drenchings, however, compares with my first encounters with the deluges my home town of Plymouth can offer. We moved south when I was seven, from Leicester, a relatively dry county. Plymouth, by absolute contrast, feels oceanic. Many miles inland, as far back north into Devon as Dartmoor Prison – of Hound of the Baskervilles fame – you still taste the sea in the air. We came to live in what was then roughly a village, somewhat outside the city proper, and in our early baffled months there, it seemed that we had moved to some underwater kingdom. My mother was taking my sister and me to school, a few days into our first term, when a cyclone deposited half the English Channel on top of us in less than a minute. The drains overflowed and the main street turned into a river; cattle and sheep cried miserably – it was a market day – as did my sister and I, utterly waterlogged. We gasped and croaked and turned and fled.

It didn’t feel like fun at the time, but it was cathartic. That day began the tradition of my later drenchings, which were basically exhilarating episodes. You cannot seek a drenching. You need to be in a bad mood and caught unawares. Then a good dousing in a squall frees you from certain social conventions and a great deal of self-consciousness, and leaves you either spluttering with laughter or splashing along the street like Gene Kelly - or both. One of the most pleasant meetings with a stranger will always be with someone who is dripping from the same cataract that has just battered you, and who has reacted with the same sensation of release. There is annoyance, embarrassment certainly, but also hilarity and even something like a benediction.

I can remember only once being right in the middle of a thunderstorm – which I understand as being when there is virtually no instant separating the lightning flash from the thunderclap. It was in Cambridge again, and I took shelter, no doubt unwisely, beneath the metal-covered porch of an enormous supermarket. A few hours later, I wrote a somewhat affected studious poem. It spoke of how I understood King Lear better now, having been at “the deaf heart of a storm” (good, eh?), “which almost snapped me like a wishbone.” In fact, I was very much unsnapped, and if anything, rather wobbly: But the boom of the thunder went through my ribcage, and it was exciting.

Sailors and sentries, refugees and road-workers would quite rightly take issue with the argument here. But I am speaking of a pleasure that should be made available to every person on Earth. Needless to say, the joy of getting drenched depends on one having somewhere safe and dry to go afterwards. 

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John Stubbs

was born in 1977 and studied English at Oxford and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge where he completed a doctorate in 2005. Donne: The Reformed Soul was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Reprobates was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.


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