So El Niño’s cold sister, La Niña, has deflected the jetstream and submerged the Heart of England under foul water. When in distress, it’s handy to finger something five miles high or off the coast of Peru.
News coverage in Britain has not been restrained by the fact that, so far, no-one has been killed, 300,000 people have not lost their electricity supply and Oxford did not flood when it was supposed to. There is a serious lack of clean water. Advised against travel to London on Sunday, I failed to appear on Iran’s new English-language satellite channel, Press TV. I have not gone to work today. In Hull, 30,000 people who really did have a bad time of it when parts of their city were submerged a couple of weeks earlier, failed to make the headlines – but then, they don’t live in the Heart of England, where people who matter might have second homes. News values, like the imperial mentality, will go their own way.
On Friday and Saturday, the river where I live on my Dutch barge, not far from the Heart of England, did change. In summer it should be slinking by, roughly at the level of the water table. Though there was no deluge here, it began to move a little faster, responding to events further upstream. Then its colour began to turn from semi-stagnant to angry sludge-brown. It gathered pace, rose five or six feet within hours, collected islands of reeds, anything left within reach, faster and faster, spinning into whirlpools, tumbling into waves, in headlong flight to the ocean.
‘Oh, of course, you can float!’ said a friend on the phone. She was worried by TV pictures of boats adrift on an overflowing River Avon, which is the name of this river. But there are several River Avons – it means, I believe, ‘River’ in Anglo-Saxon – and Shakespeare was born upon that one, not this one. This River Avon sniffed the rim of its bank and obligingly retreated.
I suppose I might have had some reason to feel complacent. I make most of my own electricity; I keep reserves of food; my water tanks are full; I do, indeed, float. I can live self-sufficiently for a couple of weeks or more. If we were to live through an age of antediluvial angst because of – not despite – global warming, I could be relatively well-placed to see out my three-score years and ten. Though I am not so fond of animals as to invite them on board two-by-two, faint fantasies did almost surface, with me and my barge steaming to some sort of rescue through inundated city streets.
But of course this cannot be so. One of the thrills – if not charms – of this way of life is to be so abjectly subject to nature. On Sunday morning I found my absent neighbour’s narrowboat listing quite sharply, impaled on its own mooring, as the river fell, by ropes now knotted too tight to loosen. Within an hour or so it would have sunk, perhaps taking with it another boat moored alongside, where a family had been huddled unawares for two days, waiting for their holiday to begin. The speed of nature, seemingly so slow, is sometimes too fast for people. We cut the ropes.
Informed opinion suggests that one cause of these ‘flash’ floods is that the land is being paved over, so the water has nowhere to go. At the same time, insane housing ‘policies’ in this country – newly announced on the very day the deluge raged – will encourage property speculation on flood plains.
Now I read this, in Blue Flag (‘The Journal of the Dutch Barge Association’ www.barges.org): ‘The continuing demand for residential units, the vibrant commercial market and the attractiveness of our waterways have combined to create proposals for a quite remarkable $12 billion – not million, billion – regeneration alongside our waterways.’ Thus spoke Robin Evans, Chief Executive of British Waterways, the QUANGO to which I must pay a fee for floating on water. Can anyone detect the stench of ‘privatization’?
Another post-diluvian fantasy enters my head. This time I am steaming to the rescue of the victims of waterways regeneration, only to be confronted by Robin Evans himself, perched on a chimney pot, armed with a boat hook, intent on fending me away from his vibrant commercial market.
To cheer myself up, I watch my old friend George Monbiot on BBC TV’s Newsnight. Once sea-level rise and ‘extreme event’ rainfall have really got to work, these ‘floods’ will begin to look like mere teardrops on the pages of history, I think he suggests. I can see it already – a wall of water heading straight towards me over the flood plain in front of the chocolate factory.