September 9th, 2018. Around 16.45. En route to Glasgow.
It’s the old train this evening – and when I say ‘old’ I don’t mean charming-old: one of those Potter-esque-steam-trains with the sliding doors and the storage racks and an air of Romance about them. I mean one of Scotrail’s semi-refurbished contraptions. The kind without tables or plug sockets or, like, a working toilet. The carriage keeps squeaking and making clacking noises whenever we cross a bridge.
I’m sitting, leaning my left shoulder against the window, while I hold a book in my lap: it’s the posture of reading – though, honestly, my mind is so full of Other Things that I’m only taking every fifth word in. Rain taps against the glass by my ear. I’m just about to sigh and flick back to the beginning of the chapter when I become aware of a rush of brightness out the corner of my eye and I sit up. Almost at the same moment, the little girl who’s been chattering to her dad a few rows down from me – she’s maybe about 7 or 8 years-old, blonde hair in a purple anorak – gasps, jumps out of her seat, and starts shouting,
‘Daddy, look! Look, Daddy! There’s a rainbow!’
Everyone in the carriage turns their head. I look too. And sure enough, there it is: a rainbow. It’s a bright one. Glowing, translucent, colourful. A full arch. My heart swells.
The train’s at that point between Port Glasgow and Bishopton where the track runs parallel to the River Clyde and the curve of it – the rainbow, I mean – stretches right over the water, right over Dumbarton Rock with its little castle (which I can just about make out if I squint my eyes), and it looks like it’s touching the other side.
I reach into my bag and pull out my iPhone, swiping the camera open and angling it, trying to get a decent picture. The lady in front of me is doing the same. Trees are now whipping past the window but I keep click-click-clicking, trying capture the rainbow inside my screen to save for later.
‘Look at it!’ the girl’s still shouting. She’s standing by the train doors now, her hands pressed up to the glass leaving greasy prints from the crisps she was eating a minute ago, ‘A rainbow, Dad! Can you see it?’
They’re funny things, rainbows. When I was younger, I thought they were imbued with mystical qualities: rainbows were a sign from God, a promise written in the sky signalling there was something more than just ‘this’. Now – I’m not quite sure what I think. I guess I know they’re just a trick of the light. And yet, they still send a thrill through me, making my hairs stand on end. They’re still a marvel, even knowing that…
And I say, ‘knowing that’. But what do I know, exactly? Words like ‘prism’ and ‘refracted’ come to mind as I look out the window at the colours hanging there, but I still don’t understand – not really – the physics of the whole thing. (It’s like when people try to explain photographs to me, or how music – something out there – gets onto a CD – something I can hold in my hand. It blows my mind). Even if someone did try to explain to me what a rainbow is – even if they were, to borrow Keats’ expression, to ‘unweave the rainbow’ and lay it all out in strands front of me so I could pick it up in pieces and examine it – I still don’t think I could ‘fathom’ it…
Rain starts to spot the windows again and the sky darkens. After snapping about ten blurry photographs I’ve put my phone down and am now just sitting looking out. The little girl has stopped shouting and she’s standing still now too, her forehead resting against the glass, her mouth hanging open a little.
‘Unweaving the rainbow…’ I turn the phrase over in my head, trying to remember the context around Keats writing that (trying to cast my memory back to undergraduate English Lit days, sitting in Enlightenment to Romanticism lectures, scribbling notes). It’s probably an oversimplification: but didn’t the Romantic poets want us to leave nature alone? Or some of them at least. I feel like there was a definite feeling among some of them that science had no business coming in and trying to explain the natural world. Rationalising meant stripping things of their beauty. Demystifying a rainbow, un-weaving it, would take the poetry out of it.
I get that. Sort of. I understand the desire to keep things ‘sacred’ – to not want to dig, and dig, and deconstruct all the time. Sometimes it’s okay to just let things be. Though the older I’ve got, the less duty-bound I feel to the notion that beauty and mystery need to come hand-in-hand. Can’t known things still be a marvel, can’t they still move us even though – perhaps even because – we understand something of them? Yes, I think they can. And I guess I’m thinking about people as well as rainbows here… but I’m not convinced that things do become boring, or dull, or less meaningful – less capable of inspiring wonder – the more we know about them. At least I hope not. (It’s a real worry I’ve had a few times - that in letting myself be known to other people, they’ll eventually reach a point of: ‘huh, so that’s what you’re like. Is that it?’. When for me it’s quite the opposite. Often the more I learn about other people, the more fascinating I tend to find them, the more endeared towards them I become because of their known-ness…)
‘Come sit back down,’ the wee girl’s dad is saying to her now, and she pads back over to him, still looking over her shoulder at the rainbow. I’m still looking at it too: staring and staring out the window until the arc of it starts to disappear, until the whole of the left side of it fades, and all that is left is just a smudge of colour that looks like it’s following the train, a slight shimmer in the air that hangs there for a few minutes. And then, eventually: nothing, just cloud.
Explaining something isn’t the same as explaining it away. I guess it comes back to that word ‘just’. A rainbow might not be a miracle, but it’s not ‘just’ a trick of the light either. It’s – and I pull out my phone here, googling ‘rainbow’ and this description pops up:
‘[…it’s] a meteorological phenomenon that is caused by reflection, refraction, and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky…’
I’m not entirely sure what all that means, but, I don’t know – I think even if I did, those words would still read a little like poetry to me…