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Travels through a sodden land

In central London, the usual Friday night concerns prevailed. Elsewhere, on the edge of the same city, people were travelling home by canoe, with dinghies tethered to lamposts where there should have been cars. 

The barrier built across the River Hull at the end of the 1970s largely stopped flooding in the city centre, but had one striking disadvantage, a woman whose house was flooded in the summer of 2007 told me: it meant that flooding “didn’t mean anything” to people any more. Sandy Henderson grew up in the fishing community of the Hessle Road, which used to flood all the time. “Recovery” – as people call the arduous cleaning-up process that many in South Yorkshire are now embarking on after the recent floods – was simpler then: they swept out, scrubbed the floors and carried on. “Not everyone could live like that,” she said. “They were hard people.”

Once the barrier was built, people got used to the security it provided, which was partly why the torrential rainfall that struck Hull in late June 2007, flooding more than 10,000 flats and houses, was so shocking. Later, Henderson joined a writing group that encouraged people to record their experience of the flood and its aftermath: writing it down helped her come to terms with what had happened.

For her, remembering was an aid to forgetting, but it was also a service to the collective memory, an attempt to ensure that the next flood won’t be so unexpected. I admired the initiative, because I was engaged in a similar project, collecting stories of the floods that sweep through Britain with increasing regularity. But I also felt that the reluctance to confront the subject went much deeper than either of us were prepared to acknowledge.

I was reminded how easy it is to ignore floods, even when they are close at hand, during the winter of 2013-14, when the Somerset Levels were submerged for over a month, and many other towns and villages were overwhelmed. When the floods reached Berkshire and Surrey, I walked the Thames, towards London, sticking as close as I could to the edge of the swollen river.

One Friday evening, I caught the train from the flooded Berkshire village of Wraysbury into central London, where I met my wife. We sat at the bar in a busy restaurant. By the time we left, there was a queue outside, and as we made our way through the groups of people winding in and out of the bars and restaurants, in search of entertainment and sustenance of many different kinds, I kept having to remind myself that in the same city people were going home by canoe. Wraysbury had been partially evacuated, and when I had got there, earlier in the day, it had felt deserted: the village green had become a flooded pool and the pavements had been replaced by duckboards. Instead of cars, there were dinghies tethered to lamp posts – yet in Soho, the usual Friday night concerns prevailed.

I didn’t expect the city to come to a standstill. For most people, life will carry on as normal even as temperatures rise and the flooding gets worse, partly because it is hard to comprehend the degree of emotional trauma and practical disruption that it causes, until you find yourself in its path. As a civil servant once said to me – off the record, as all those conversations were, as no one would speak officially for fear of distressing people even more – flooding was “disproportionately upsetting”: it couldn’t be reduced to a rational tallying of its effects. Official neglect does not help, as the residents of South Yorkshire have reminded us in recent days, yet the underlying cause of their anger is not political callousness or bureaucratic mismanagement: it is the shock of encountering the natural forces we like to think we have banished to the corners of our ordered existence.

The flood myths, like the Noah story, convey the obliterating nature of being flooded: to those affected, it feels like the end of the world. Yet perhaps the enduring prominence of the story, which is constantly being retold in nursery rhymes, films and novels, also explains why other people find it easy to ignore the floods until they reach their door. As Peter Ackroyd said in his 2007 book Thames: Sacred River, “Floods are forgotten, until the next one occurs.”

Perhaps the flood myths strengthen the amnesia by offering subliminal reassurance that the planet has always flooded, and we have always got through it. It is hard to accept that this age is different, and that the rebirth envisaged in the Noah story may not be available any more.

Even the natural phenomena that have come to symbolise a new beginning take on different forms in our over-stressed world: there was a rainbow hanging over the woods as I walked into Wraysbury that day, but its fragile beauty was diminished by the smell of sewage that permeated the air.

JG Ballard, who lived in Shepperton, another flooded Thames-side suburb that I had passed through, diagnosed the challenge with terrifying acuity. He eulogised the Thames Valley as “a marine world”, in which “the dappled light below the trees fell upon an ocean floor”, but he also offered a bleaker vision of London and its suburbs on an overheated planet. In The Drowned World (1962), the city becomes a tropical lagoon, where giant ferns sprout through the windows of the abandoned buildings and the air is thronged with giant bats and mosquitos. Yet the psychology of the novel is more disturbing than the loving descriptions of its flooded streets: “He wanted to become part of the drowned world,” one character says of another. Ballard’s characters do not fear the flood: they embrace it.

The reason we do not address global warming, The Drowned World suggests, is not because we fail to recognise the severity of the crisis, or lack the energy to do anything about it, but because we do not want to. The drift to disaster is self-willed. The anguished voices of the people in South Yorkshire may temporarily seem impossible to ignore, and activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion will seek to maintain the urgency when the water levels go back down, but the inertia and passivity that have afflicted us until now will be hard to overcome.

Edward Platt’s “The Great Flood: Travels Through a Sodden Landscape” is published by Picador

This article appears in the 20 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over