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January 2019



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Water, water everywhere: floods in books

It’s wet enough here but I’m so sorry for all the poor people up north with their homes and businesses ruined. Nan said it reminded her of The Nine Tailors, a very good comparison.

'Better patrol the roads between the Fenchurches,' suggested (Superintendent) Blundell. 'St Peter is greatly alarmed – they’re afraid for the bridges. We are arranging a service of ferry-boats. They lie even lower than you do and are, I fear, not so well prepared as you, sir.'
'We can offer them shelter here,' said the Rector. 'The church will hold nearly a thousand at a pinch, but they must bring what food they can. And their bedding, of course.'

Note the need for self reliance: no mobiles to call for help, no emergency services with helicopters to rescue people from their roofs. Everything was down to the local community, as it was at the time of the terrible floods of 1953. Strangely, the only novels I can think of which deal with that disaster were written for children. The best of these, I think, is The Great Gale by Hester Burton , published by OUP in 1960.

The book begins:
This is the story of what happened to a village in Norfolk one winter night, early in 1953. It is the story of everyone who lived in that village.

The main characters are Mary and Mark Vaughan, children of the local doctor. By ill chance, their parents are in Norwich on the night of the flood and the children have to cope alone in a house suddenly surrounded by rising water. As in The Nine Tailors, the church is used as a refuge. The sense of isolation is frightening: when the villagers listen to ‘a battery wireless’, the east coast gets no mention on the news.
Part of the book is based on a true life incident involving Airman Reis Leming, an American who won the George Cross. The children are not at all heroic but come bravely through their ordeal; there is never any doubt that the whole experience is terrifying and there is real tragedy. Hester Burton is best known for her historical novels but I prefer this twentieth century one, which I suppose is now historical! No one seems to read her now. My copy of this book is a first edition in perfect condition and it cost me almost nothing on eBay a while ago. Atmospheric pictures by Joan Kiddell-Monroe, too.

Malcolm Saville's Sea Witch Comes Home was also published in 1960 but is very different. It's the thirteenth Lone Pine book and the worst, in many people's opinion. The flood is used to add drama to a story which would work without it and there is none of the brilliant atmosphere of The Great Gale. Most of Saville's books have a little topographical introduction:
The scene is a stretch of the east coast of England between Southwold and Orford which for centuries has been attacked by the sea and which is slowly crumbling away. At the end of the book, he can't resist instructing his young readers on the valuable work of the WVS and the helpers 'to save life, to comfort the afflicted, to shelter the homeless, to restore the services of gas, telephone and water that we take for granted.' Rather plodding.

A much better book and one of my all time favourites is Monica Edwards' Storm Ahead (1953). This was based not on contemporary events but on a tragedy which took place during Monica Edwards' own childhood: the Rye lifeboat disaster of 1928. It's excellently written, the storm brilliantly described, the tragedy felt. Here's Tamzin riding Cascade through flood waters in the dark, to fetch a doctor.

Other wet books include: Crusoe Island by M E Atkinson, part of the Lockett series; Margaret J Baker's Castaway Christmas and Jam Tomorrow by Monica Redlich. Each of these shows realistically how frightening water, mud and fear of running out of food can be. I wonder if anyone will ever write a book about events at Cockermouth, 2009?

Crusoe Island


The bit about 'swimming' Cascade is one of my favourite Monica Edwards passages. It sounded well exciting!
Good, isn't it? Finding her way by the telegraph poles! I think it's Monica Edwards' best book.
I do like Castaway Christmas. Was it Michael Morpugo who wrote the children's book about the fairly recent foot and mouth outbreak very movingly? Maybe he'll tackle the floods.
Good point. Glad you liked Castaway Christmas.
Murder at the Flood by Mabel Esther Allan starts out with a very dramatic flood!
Good to know the story lives up to the title! I hope you'll review the book!
The only Dutch book I've read that featured the 1953 flood was a YA novel from the late 'sixties, early 'seventies I think, an ex-library copy. I don't remember title or author, I got rid of it because it was too melodramatic for my taste. For the most part it is a mediocre story about teenage girls (living in Zeeland or the south of South Holland) and their average problems, and then suddenly in the last chapter or so disaster strikes. The whole family drowns, except for the main character and her identical twin, who are at a party in The Hague or thereabouts. Shortly thereafter her twin sister is killed before her eyes when a car runs her over, and so the main character decides she doesn't want to live any more either. She swims out to sea, planning to drown herself, but at the very last moment she changes her mind, turns around and lands totally exhausted on the beach. The End.

I do have a (much-loved) picture book about a little dandelion-seed man who goes to live in a bottle near the river. During heavy rains the river floods and the bottle is swept away, and the dandelion-seed man is rescued in the nick of time. According to Wikipedia it was published in 1954, so maybe it was inspired by the flood.
That sounds a horrible book! Thank goodness for the little dandelion seed man.

I'm well aware, BTW, that things were even worse in the Netherlands.
Do you know, in school I learned about the 1953 flood of course, but it was pretty much all about Zeeland and I never knew until much later that England and to a lesser extent Belgium had also suffered.


My house flooded in 1953, can still see salt damage on dining-room wall about waist-high (before you ask, it has been redecorated! but paint still blisters a few weeks later). There's photos in local museum of boats going down the street. So I'd love to read Hester Burton if I ever come across a copy.
Not quite the same, because it was a very gentle flood ... but don't forget Children of Green Knowe which starts with Tolly being rowed to the front door.
Hester Burton sounds very relevant! I've never got on with the Green Knowe books, I don't know why.