Leave out Hurricane Irene – which was not quite destructive enough to merit blanket television coverage – and the major atmospheric tumult afflicting the east coast of America in recent times has coincided with my being there. Some three years ago, as I reported in this column at the time, I flew into “Snowmageddon” Washington on the last plane out of London. “The last plane out.” Fainter hearted men might have stayed home, but I resolved to boldly go.
And then, earlier this week, I was offered the “last plane out” of Toronto into a soon-to-be “Frankenstormed” New York. I had a reading to give at a significant venue. Not Carnegie Hall, but close. The kind of event you don’t play fast and loose with. But if I flew in, I couldn’t be sure when I’d be able to fly out. And how many people would turn up anyway with the city under water? I have my readers, but still and all, rowing up 92nd Street! As I was deciding what to do, the organisers cancelled, and that was me off the hook. I could return home, dejected but at least not feeling I’d been a coward.
I did wonder, though, how much of this was my fault. I go to America and the roof falls in. Was I just plain unlucky or do I bring bad luck in my luggage?
Maybe only a narcissist would even ask the question. Canute is now said to have known all along that he couldn’t stop the waves and had his throne borne to the water’s edge only to prove the impotence of man when faced with the authority of nature. Shame. I preferred him as a braggart. In the days when The Golden Bough was popular, I liked reading about the people of Central Angoniland who, during drought, repaired to what they called a rain-temple where they poured beer into a pot for their local divinity in the hope that if they whetted his whistle he would whet theirs.
My father was a bit of a magician so you could say magic was in my veins. Magic is only the inverse of guilt. Do the wrong thing and the gods punish you; do the right and they relent. Some people don’t even call it magic. They call it religion.
I’ve always had a soft spot, too, for the astronomer in Dr Johnson’s Rasselas – a man “who had spent 40 years in unwearied attention to the motion and appearances of the celestial bodies”, in the course of which study he had reached the conclusion that the weather behaved as it did because he told it to. “The sun has listened to my dictates, and passed from tropic to tropic by my direction; the clouds at my call have poured their waters, and the Nile has overflowed at my command.” This, Dr Johnson calls the “reign of fancy”, in which “fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or of anguish”.
Not insanity, exactly, but the beginning of it. Change the subject from weather to politics (false opinions fastening upon the mind, fiction operating as reality, etc), and it’s an insanity that’s not at all uncommon. Sport breeds comparable derangement – the most rational of spectators believing that an unguarded comment causes a wicket to fall, or a moment of inattention results in a goal for the other side.
If it’s hard to accept we aren’t the cause of what occurs, it’s harder still to be the mere bystander of it. We would like a little of life’s excitement to be seen to have rubbed off on us, so long as we emerge from the contact unscathed.
Who doesn’t have a story to tell of being a whisker from a historic event? I was almost there. I left Paris half an hour before the French Revolution broke out. I cancelled an arrangement to meet a friend for knackwurst and sauerkraut at the Bürgerbräukeller on the night of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. I was fastening my shoelace when Shane Warne bowled Gatting with his first ball in an English Test match.
I hated being walled up in a miserable hotel in Washington watching the snow fall from my window while watching it fall again on television – the biggest snowfall in living memory, everyone said. But at the same time it energised me. It was almost worth being bored and cold for. I’d be able to tell my grandchildren how the snow fell and fell in Washington and no living person had ever seen anything to compare with it.
And no sooner is the decision not to catch the last plane from Toronto to New York taken out of my hands, than a ghoulish thought occurs to me – I am missing out on an adventure. I am letting history pass me by. I half hope there’ll be scenes of panic at the airport. When my mobile phone rings, I feel a surge of exhilaration imagining it’s Mayor Bloomberg saying he has ordered my reading to go ahead no matter that the city will be shut down, the subway flooded, the lower part of Manhattan on fire. “The consolation of literature is just what we need right now,” he wants me to know. “We’ll helicopter you in.” Poets used to be at the vanguard of revolution, why shouldn’t a novelist be in the eye of the storm? But it isn’t Mayor Bloomberg. It’s a recorded message telling me I might be owed compensation for an accident I was never in.
In the airport lounge, we watch television pictures of New York bracing itself. An awful apprehension, part apocalyptic curiosity, part compassion, part guilt, seizes us. Finally, as though nursing some unappeasable grievance against the innocent, “Frankenstorm” comes ashore. It can’t be my fault. I’m leaving as it’s arriving. But, reader, I was almost there. I was this far from history.