Though the popular imagination hardly acknowledges it, LS Lowry painted much more than “matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs”. The subject he returned to most compulsively, obsessively even, were the seas and waters that surround and filigree this island. But his depictions are not the limpid, watery idylls of Constable or Canaletto. Lowry’s seas and waters are silent, brutal, huge, implacable. “What interests me here is the vastness of it and the terribleness of it… I wonder what would happen if the tide didn’t turn, and the sea came on and on and on and on. What would the place be like, and wouldn’t it be wonderful to see it?” asked Lowry, excitably.
Most of those individuals encountered and interviewed in Edward Platt’s new book would not share Lowry’s childlike wonder at the power and “terribleness” of water, nor his perverse eagerness to witness its handiwork. They’ve had quite a deal of the stuff first-hand these past few years, and in places where they’d really rather it wasn’t: pooling lazily in their bedrooms and kitchens, lapping at their bookshelves, gushing down the high streets of their quiet towns carrying cars and trees in a roaring, mud-choked flood.
Contrast Lowry’s glee with Heather Shepherd of Pentre in Herefordshire, who has felt the chilly presence of the River Severn’s upper reaches on more than one occasion. “You have all these visions in your head, but it’s difficult to understand [being flooded] until it happens to you. It came in at different levels. We couldn’t stop it. It came in through the walls, in little spurting fountains; it came in through the floors; it came through any opening it could find.”
This is a book about inundation and immersion, notions that have swirled in the human psyche for millennia. Whether the great flood that necessitated Noah’s ark was real or not (researchers such as William Ryan and Walter Pitman think it was the sudden flooding of a huge freshwater lake that became the Black Sea), its potency as a symbol speaks to our fear and fascination with the power of inundation, the idea of flood as a (literally) biblical event, causing rupture with an older world and ushering in a new phase of life. We use “antediluvian” to mean ludicrously antique and old fashioned, but its literal meaning is “before the flood”.
From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Atlantis myth, to the Yangtze being known as “China’s Sorrow” due to the ferocity of its ancient floods, these human anxieties and preoccupations are global. But Platt’s book focuses on the nexus of river bursts and floods that swept Great Britain in the winter of 2013-14.
Hardly any corner of the land has been unaffected by flood, as chapters taking in everywhere from Fenland to the Lake District, Humberside to Wales, Gloucestershire to Northumbria, show. But despite the exhaustive and extensive travelogue, somehow this is always a book about Middle England, not just in terms of latitude and longitude but in a more abstract, inchoate and mysterious way; an England of quiet individual tragedy and its bedfellow, eccentric local heroism. Even the names seem timeless somehow, like minor characters in Shakespeare: Jane Smeaton, John Badham and Peter Boggis – “The King Canute of East Anglia”, who bankrupted himself attempting to build a flood defence of rubble on the Suffolk coast. They live in Abbey Terrace and Tudor Cottage, down by the Swilgate or the Hundred Foot Drain, in Felpham, Cookham and scores of other quietly quintessential corners of darkest England.
This is not altogether an excursion in the nation’s plump and affluent midriff though. This is also the less cosy but no less emblematic England of Jaywick near Clacton, Essex, reckoned by some measures to be the poorest place in England. It is a place where spliff-smoking hoodies haunt the sea wall at night, and where memories of the devastating 1953 flood, when dozens perished in Jaywick alone, still seem painfully fresh. There are a great many personal accounts that can, at the risk of appearing cold, make the book mildly repetitious. Unless you are the unfortunate householder (in which case each loss is keen and unique), one sodden domicile can start to seem very much like another. But the effect is cumulatively melancholy, incantatory even.
An undertow of very English resentment and suspicion towards metropolitan authority and expertise pulses through the narrative, from the locals at the King Alfred Inn on the Somerset Levels railing against the Environment Agency for spending £31m on a nearby nature reserve and therefore caring “more about birds than people”, to Peter Boggis’s habit of referring to English Nature as “English Nazis” for reasons not entirely apparent. For most of his journey, Platt resists any urge to polemicise. He quietly tells us, but not the locals, that the nature reserve is in fact a buffer zone where the storms can waste their dreadful power harmlessly away from their houses. But Platt does see in the solitary and brooding Boggis “perhaps a hero of an inimitable English kind”, and in the last chapter he can still talk of his incoherent rage at the “secrecy and ineptitude” of our political masters, while acknowledging that “the real culprits” are easy to trace when it comes to the emerging climate catastrophe: “We are the ones to blame.”
Less apocalyptically perhaps (though some might disagree), it’s hard not to sense the deep tidal shiftings embodied by Brexit in the murky currents of mood among these people hoping, at the very best, to be left high and dry – rather than forgotten and submerged beneath a tide of unwelcome change, climactic and political.
Stuart Maconie’s books include “Long Road from Jarrow” (Ebury Press)
The Great Flood: Travels Through a Sodden Landscape
Picador, 192pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 23 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state