The town of Tewkesbury is submerged in receding flood waters of the River Severn and Avon. Photograph: Getty Images
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The drowned world

As the planet warms, extreme weather is becoming a part of our daily life, but Britain is still ill-equipped to cope with the floods.

I arrived in Tewkesbury on the November day the flood waters began to subside. The Swilgate, the tributary of the Avon that runs round the southern edge of the town, had overflown its banks fours days earlier. The dark brown water had spilled across a car park and playground and was lapping at the edge of the site of the new hospital, which is being built beside the old one. The line of trees rising through the middle of the placid expanse of water was the only indication of the Swilgate’s normal course; even the local man standing on the footbridge that led across the river to his home on the far bank had trouble working out where it normally ran.

Another footbridge further down Howells Road was submerged, and there were sandbags piled against the gate of a builder’s merchant. A man sweeping the tidemark of dirt off his drive showed me pictures he had taken two days earlier when the flood was at its height: the water had reached halfway up the drive, covering the wheel arches of his car, but stopping short of the motorbike and the dinghy parked beneath the windows of the house.

He had not been living in Tewkesbury in 2007, when the house was under 18 inches of water and the town acquired its reputation as the capital of a newly flood-prone country. According to the Environment Agency, 414 millimetres (16 inches) of rain fell across England and Wales between May and July 2007, making it the wettest period since records began in 1766. When between 80 and 90 millimetres of rain – more than two months’ worth – fell on Tewkesbury on Friday 20 July, the saturated ground could not absorb it. Water flooded the streets and encircled the town’s celebrated abbey, the second-largest parish church in the country, which stands at the southern end of town.

“We had people who were trapped in their cars, and slept overnight here,” the Reverend Canon Paul Williams, vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey, told me. “We had 200 in the abbey, 200 in the hall and people dotted round about. It’s something quite deep in Tewkesbury, the idea of the abbey as a refuge: people ran for shelter, and it became an ark.” An aerial photograph of the abbey surrounded by dark brown water was transmitted round the world. Paul Williams says it became as widely recognised as the image of the dome of St Paul’s rising through the smoke of the Blitz.

A local councillor called John Badham was one of the people whose house had flooded. He lives in Abbey Terrace, which lies beneath the abbey, close to the Mill Avon, the canal built in the 12th century to service the mills in the southern part of the town. Yet it was not just the Mill Avon that caused the flood; the Swilgate had overflowed as well, and water swept through his house from both sides. “It was very frightening,” he said. “It brought down all the fences in the garden and it was so powerful that you couldn’t stand up in it.”

The flooding wasn’t over. In the summer months, the gauge on the Mythe Bridge on the River Severn usually records levels of 0.5 metres, but on Sunday 22 July 2007 it reached 5.43 metres, beating the record of 5.3 metres set in March 1947. Both the Severn and the Avon burst their banks.

“When I woke up, it was eerily quiet, and I walked outside and saw the water coming, and the Fire Brigade all over the place,” Paul Williams said. He maintains that the abbey is usually immune because the “monks knew where to build” – the story of the vicar who paddled a boat down the aisle in 1760 is a folk memory of the only time in its 900-year history when it was flooded – but at 3pm on Sunday it flooded again. Paul Williams had to go down to the pub and ask people to help him move everything out of the reach of the water. He held evensong at the gates of the abbey and people came out of the nearby houses to listen. “It was a powerful cultic event. You could see the power of ritual holding a community together,” he told me.

Tewkesbury was cut off for four days. Three people drowned, more than 5,000 homes and businesses were flooded, and the Mythe water treatment works shut down for two weeks, depriving 140,000 people of running water. The pattern was repeated across the country, in Yorkshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire and Derbyshire. In total, 13 people drowned, more than 55,000 homes and businesses were flooded, and the emergency services conducted more “search-and-rescue missions” than at any time since the Second World War.

The floods of 2007 are often described as the worst civil emergency in British history, and the Environment Agency estimates that they caused £3.2bn of damage. The true figure is probably higher, because places such as Tewkesbury suffered a “double whammy”, according to Paul Williams: its shops, hotels and restaurants depend on the tourist trade and many people cancelled holidays in the aftermath of the floods. He says it took Tewkesbury three or four years to recover, and many people in the town are still feeling the effects.

They are not alone: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says 5.2 million households in England are at risk of flooding, and the present agreement between the insurance industry and the government that guarantees affordable insurance to flood-prone homes is due to expire in June. On 26 November, as flood waters rose again, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) said that negotiations over a new deal had broken down. It issued a statement saying it wanted taxpayers to provide a temporary overdraft for a non-profit fund that would be used to pay claims in the early years of the scheme before it had a chance to build up reserves, but the government had refused. Defra says that negotiations are ongoing, but the ABI says they have reached an “impasse” that will leave 200,000 high-risk households struggling to find affordable insurance.

There are other points of contention: the last agreement proceeded on the basis that the insurance industry would continue to provide affordable insurance to flood-prone homes on the assumption that the government would continue to invest in flood defences, and the ABI maintains that “investment in flood defences needs to be at a level to match the flood risk”. It is estimated that every £1 spent on flood defences saves £8 on the cost of clean-up and repairs. And yet, no matter how much we invest, flood damage is sure to increase as climate change begins to take effect. A report commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2004 predicted that the cost could increase from the current yearly average of £2.2bn to as much as £29bn by 2080.

Natural variations in the weather make it difficult to establish the cause of any one event, but the pattern of increasingly extreme weather we are beginning to witness is probably the result of a warming planet. Ten of the hottest years on record have occurred in the past 11 years, and in September it was discovered that the Arctic sea ice had shrunk to its smallest recorded extent. A heatwave in late June and early July in North America broke many records, and sea-level rise has doubled the risk of flooding in many parts of the US and Canada. There were harsh droughts in China, Brazil and Russia between January and September and severe flooding in West Africa and Pakistan. Hurricane Sandy caused scores of deaths when it struck New York and the east coast of the United States in October, just days before the US presidential election. In early December, the “super-typhoon” Bopha killed more than 1,000 people in the Philippines.

In the UK, the March heatwave that contri - buted to hosepipe bans in the south-east of England seems more improbable now than it did at the time, because the following month turned out to be the wettest April in 100 years. There was more heavy rain and flooding throughout summer and early autumn. In late September, 570 houses and businesses flooded and the River Ouse in York reached its second-highest recorded level. In October, the Devon fishing village of Clovelly was hit by a flash flood that sent water cascading down the main street. Yet the worst flooding was triggered by the heavy rainfall that began on 21 November, with Wales and the south-west of England hardest hit. A woman drowned and 500 households were evacuated in the small Welsh town of St Asaph after the River Elwy burst its banks. The government has been criticised for cutting 294 flood defence schemes that had been approved in 2010, and on the day I arrived in Tewkesbury it announced that it would spend another £120m on flood defences.

When I left the abbey I walked down Mill Street to Tewkes - bury Mill, which stands on the banks of the Mill Avon. The mill had been cut off in 2007 – Paul Williams said the people set up a bosun’s chair to ferry supplies back and forth – and now it was cut off again: water covered the base of the steps leading up to the entrance and spilled through the open doors of the cellar, though it wasn’t until I looked at Google Street View and saw photographs taken on a summer afternoon that I realised how high the Mill Avon had risen, and how much it had altered the layout of the streets. The water that surrounded the mill and lapped at the picturesque half-timbered houses on St Mary’s Road concealed a park and a road, as well as the reed-fringed banks of the Mill Avon and the flat green fields beyond.

As I made my way along the edge of the town, following the course of the Avon as closely as I could, I kept passing steps that sank into the water, and signs directing me towards submerged footpaths. I passed Ye Olde Black Bear, “Glosters oldest inn”, which stands beside the bridge across the Avon Navigation, and turned into a cul-de-sac of terraced houses called King John’s Court. A sign restricting parking to permit holders protruded through the surface of the water at the end of the street. The way the railings at the side of the car park diminished in height as they advanced into the water confirmed that the land fell away in front of me, though it must have risen again in front of the marooned lock-keeper’s cottage, for the bench positioned for looking out across the floodplain was only half submerged.

Trees and telegraph poles marked the borders of the drowned fields, which stretched west towards the confluence of the Severn and the Avon. The still surface of the water mirrored the trees and clouds, and the silhouette of the water treatment works shut during the floods of 2007 was the only sign of human occupation. It reminded me of the descriptions of “the Lake”, the “inland sea of sweet water” that covers central England in Richard Jefferies’s prescient novel After London (1885).

Depictions of post-apocalyptic worlds became commonplace in 20th-century fiction, but Jefferies was a Victorian naturalist. “At the eastern extremity the Lake narrows, and finally is lost in the vast marshes which cover the site of the ancient London,” writes the novel’s unnamed narrator. He does not know exactly how the Lake formed, but speculates that “changes of the sea level” threw up great sandbanks at the mouth of the Thames, while a “broad barrier of beach” obstructed the mouth of the Severn: once the rivers’ eastward and westward flow was blocked, they “turned backwards . . . and began to cover hitherto dry land”. London becomes a foul, decaying swamp, but “the Lake” in the novel is as “clear as crystal, exquisite to drink, abounding with fishes of every kind, and adorned with green islands”.

J G Ballard’s early novel The Drowned World (1962) offers a less idyllic vision of a flooded planet. The rise in global temperatures that precipitates Ballard’s version of the catastrophe is caused not by human activity, but by “a series of violent and prolonged solar storms” that deplete “the earth’s barrier against the full impact of solar radiation”. As once-temperate areas become tropical and tropical areas become uninhabitable, the human population is reduced to no more than five million, who live on the polar ice caps. As the novel begins, “the South” has been abandoned, and Ballard’s protagonist, Kerans, is one of the few people to have remained in London. The city that once lay on the chilly fringes of northern Europe has become a tropical lagoon; giant ferns sprout through the windows of the abandoned buildings and the air is thronged with giant bats and mosquitoes. Reptiles are the dominant species.

Yet it is not only the external landscape that is changing. As the natural world cycles back through its evolutionary history, its human inhabitants are also drawn into what one calls the “archaeopsychic past”. Far from fearing the disintegration of the life they knew, they welcome the re-emergence of a primeval world with which they are subconsciously familiar: “How often recently most of us have had the feeling of déjà vu, of having seen all this before, in fact of remembering these swamps and lagoons all too well,” one character says. “Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.”

I was contemplating Tewkesbury’s own drowned world when I became aware of a man watching me from the window of the nearest house. It transpired that he was more concerned by burglars than flooding – his neighbour’s car had been stolen the previous day and he was wary of a return visit. Once reassured that I was not a threat, he told me of his disdain for people who fail to appreciate that Tewkesbury always floods, and argued that his house was perfectly safe despite being located on a promontory enclosed on three sides by water. “These houses were built with flooding in mind,” he said, indicating the slab that raised the front door half a metre above the ground.

He conceded that the November flood water had been higher than usual and that it had taken longer for it to subside, but he insisted it had not been a threat: the Severn had peaked at 4.8 metres – only 70 centimetres lower than 2007, but an enormous volume of water was required to effect any rise in the level across the thousands of acres of floodplain. A family had to be rescued in Sandhurst, Gloucestershire, ten miles downstream; flood defences failed in Kempsey, Worcestershire, 12 miles upstream; and even the White Bear, which stands on the main road a hundred metres north of the Black Bear, had flooded; but King John’s Court had remained untouched. “Personally, I don’t see a problem for us here,” the man said. “There is a problem in other places, but that’s the subtle difference with Tewkesbury –we don’t try and stop the water, we just let it flow through.”

It was another version of the two contrasting views that I heard repeated several times while I was in the town. Paul Williams told me that he takes communion to housebound old ladies who used to regard flooding as so routine that they would move upstairs and let the water flush out the downstairs rooms, yet other people were not so sanguine. Councillor Badham, who moved upstairs for six months after the floods of 2007, said that 10 per cent of Tewkesbury’s residents live in fear of being flooded. “It would be nice to have security, not just for me, because I’m relatively well off, but for other people in the town,” he said. “This is a workingclass town. There are a lot of people in Tewkesbury who don’t earn very much, who face enormously increased bills on their insurance – if they can get it at all – and face the anxiety every time the water comes up of being flooded. In some parts of the town, there are a lot of very, very anxious people; often quite poor people, and elderly people: vulnerable people.”

Yet both groups had one thing in common – whether they fear the flood or view it with equanimity, the residents of Tewkesbury are used to living with it. They have made the kind of accommodation that more of us will be required to make if water levels continue to rise as predicted and flooding becomes more frequent. Paul Williams believes that we will have to accept we are not “above nature”, though J G Ballard raises the more disturbing possibility that we already have done so. Perhaps we do not fear the flood, and will do nothing to avert it, because we recognise it as part of the cycle of life on a planet that sustains us, and yet remains indifferent to our existence.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest book is “The City of Abraham” (Picador, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain