How do the British deal with the rain? Pimm's, scones and stoicism
'It is the eternal national spirit,' Chris McGrath at a wet SW19 is told by a couple sheltering under two enormous plastic ponchos
Thursday 23 June 2011
The man, hunched miserably under a dripping pergola, put out a hand as a group of girls went by.
"Hey," he said. "Where d'you get those?"
One of the girls simpered apologetically. "These? Oh, these are bin bags. Yeah, we know we look great."
Just below, rain dimpled a water feature on the Aorangi Terrace. "Deep water," reproved a sign. "No bathing." It was hard to suppress a bitter laugh.
This is the soggy solstice of the sporting season. There is nowhere better – not Ascot, nor Lord's, nor Henley – to sample the defining, national acquiescence that into each life some rain must fall. Sure enough, yesterday's deluge disclosed the British variously at their most phlegmatic.
Perhaps the least comfortable of the available social templates was suggested by the merciless division of haves and have-nots on the mound. With the rain at its most inexorable, several hundred could be found crouching under umbrellas before the giant screen, watching events unfolding before the happy few in the cloudless, skyless sanctum of Centre Court.
Poignantly, many of them were holding the hottest ticket of the day, to see Andy Murray on Court One. These included a pair of his compatriots, Henry and Moira Allenby, who sat disconsolately at a picnic table with a bottle of white wine. At least they had no need of an ice bucket. They had journeyed down from near Inverness, where of course they never see weather like this. "The thing is that we were originally going to come here yesterday," Henry laments. "But we swapped with my brother."
It turns out that his stoical bearing may have more specific genetic antecedents than some merely racial docility. Pressed, he admits that his great-great-grandfather was Field Marshal Allenby, who famously entered Jerusalem on foot.
At least they had managed to see The Mousetrap the previous evening. Even that, in its 59th year, could not be counted the most dependable ritual of their trip. But the perennial challenge of rain at Wimbledon was being met in like fashion in every precinct: with resource and humour.
Gabrielle Macdonald and Jen Pemberton, for instance, had hauled a soaking table indoors, spread out a mackintosh and made themselves at home. "We're northerners, you see?"
They, too, had Court One tickets, and were already wrestling with the dilemma of an 8.30pm train back to Manchester. If the forecast proved accurate, they would have to leave in the throes of the Murray match – and these were precisely the sort of supporters he could least afford to lose, unquenchable in their outlook.
"I've never been here before, but it was on my list of things to do before I die," says Jen, a charity fund-raiser.
"The bucket list," adds Gabrielle, who runs a care home. ("A very nice one, not like you see on the TV.")
"So a box ticked," Jen said, with a cheerfully resigned gesture at the rain.
"I was here for Steffi Graf's last final," Gabrielle says. "Eight rows from the front, and blistering hot."
"I'll come back," Jen vows. "Look at all these people, so compliant. They've got their Pimm's, their champagne, their scones. They're happy, and they're improvising."
But their charming determination to make the most of adversity was by no means the only singularly British virtue on show. At the other end of the spectrum came the heroic perseverance, and pragmatism, of Alan and Elizabeth Putt.
Theirs had not been such a long journey – from Croydon – but they had been standing in the queue since 8.30am. Now they were to be found on a bench beside Court 14, peering benignly out of two enormous plastic ponchos. They had turned the situation to their advantage. "It's a free-for-all once the rain stops," they explain. "If you stay put, you've got a seat – and a dry one. These things are really warm, as well."
Nobody seems to be complaining. "It's the eternal British spirit," Alan says quietly.
For some, the rain is even welcome. The shop is doing a roaring trade, above all in umbrellas – roll-ups a tenner, golf 25 quid. "But it's only good for business if it rains a little while," says Jean Cooke, retail director. "If it goes on all day, people get fed up. Ideally we would want this to clear up, everyone to enjoy some fantastic tennis, and then call in for a souvenir to take home."
Even as she spoke, a lorry was on its way from the warehouse with a fresh batch of brollies. "In 2007, I suppose we sold around 10,000 of them," Cooke says. "But we've actually had gorgeous weather the last two years, and then it was all hats."
In the end, it is the real constants that count. The Putts reveal they had tickets for the men's final in the ballot, but passed them up as they would not have been seated together. So here they are, huddled patiently together in the rain, the best of British.
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