High Water

My grandmother’s house – my childhood home – was the only one on its street to flood last year. The timing felt almost providential. My grandmother herself had only recently been convinced to leave her familiar kitchen and semi-detached garden for a small room with my parents. The house had been left like the Mary Celeste. My grandfather’s dictionary collection was still nestled above his desk though it hadn’t been touched since his death. The beds were made up with sheets and the cupboards were stocked with tea and plates. My grandmother put off making a decision about its future for one month and then another and then several more. We avoided mentioning it in front of her. I suppose none of us were ready to part with the old fossil.

The flood happened in the space of a week in early spring, as the late freeze began to thaw. My parents checked in during the weekend to water the plants as usual and heard strange noises upstairs. Part of the ceiling had fallen in and the sodden rooms were beginning to smell of rot. When I next visited everything had been stripped back to brickwork and planks, with industrial fans roaring through the empty space and pencilled notations on the walls to indicate the decreasing humidity levels. It took six months to dry the building out and twice as long to salvage a few memories from the skips that we eventually towed to the dump. It turned out that several burst pipes were to blame. Still, I found myself returning to that providential narrative. How lucky that the flood had come just that moment that the house stood empty, how necessary its destruction had been to jerk us out of our inertia. Nature hates waste.

In a developed country where major earthquakes and wildfires are rare, flooding from lakes and rivers is one of the few things that pull us back into a state of nature, aware that our lives and possessions are subject to vast, mysterious forces. Instinctively we look for a reason for the ravaged homes and spoilt livelihoods that floods leave in their wake. A few immediate culprits might be named – a failed flood barrier or a silted river – but bolder questions lurk unresolved at the scene of the crime: why did this really happen and what must we do to stop it from happening again?

I asked those questions along with everyone else when floods covered parts of England and Wales this spring. January was the wettest month in 250 years, according to the world’s longest-running weather station at Oxford – unprecedented in the era of modern river management. Yet for many, the answer seemed to lie solely in the Environment Agency’s decision to stop dredging the major rivers that thread through the Somerset Levels. It’s an attractive argument from a journalistic perspective because the chairman of the Environment Agency has a PhD in Romantic Poetry, which many have taken as a sign of ignorance when it comes to practical environmental decisions. (‘Chris Smith probably thinks the Somerset Levels is a poem by Wordsworth’, grumbled a fairly representative commenter.) This piece of information was a rare island of solid fact in the confusion of assigning blame, and it came with such potential for gleeful quotation.

One reporter took the opportunity to quote a famous line from Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: ‘Water, water everywhere / Nor any drop to drink’. ‘Residents of the inundated Somerset Levels might sympathise with the cursed sailor,’ the journalist archly noted. And yet Coleridge’s line about a long sea voyage captures something different from the sense of disturbed equilibrium that is specific to a flood. Seas may seem threatening in their vastness, and lakes enchanting in their silence, but both form parts of the fixed landscape, hemmed in by harbours and shores. Floods alone constitute a shift in the balance between dry land and water – they are ‘matter out of place’ on the grandest scale imaginable.

That phrase – ‘matter out of place’ – was used by the anthropologist Mary Douglas to define dirt in 1966. She argued that dirt existed solely in the eye of the beholder – it was ‘dirt’ only because it resisted an attempt to impose order on things. It is the difference between food on your plate and on your clothing; between clothing neatly folded and lying on the floor. ‘Dirt then,’ she wrote, ‘is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system.’

Like dirt, floods revolt against our sense of order, which puts water in its proper place and our solid living rooms, roads and farmland in another. The ‘system’ that we rely on is overthrown. We are left to ask what went wrong, and why.

The idea that flooding implies the disturbance of an accepted order chimes with the traditional take, which stretches back to the Bible and beyond. In the Genesis flood account the ‘system’ of nature is disturbed for the specific moral purpose of punishing human iniquity – the cup of divine wrath literally overflows. Cleansing destruction is followed by a return to order and the rejuvenation of the world, as Noah and his ark re-seed the land. The narrative echoes a number of earlier Mesopotamian stories of destructive floods orchestrated by God(s) to punish humanity. The most recent echo of this story is perhaps Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic, Noah. (The film also conforms to another more recent narrative tradition – that of the blockbuster – by giving Noah a leather-clad nemesis who is delightfully played by Ray Winstone, complete with cockney accent and shouts of: ‘Take the Ark!’) Aronofsky’s Noah is a brooding eco-warrior who believes that all of humanity must die in order to cleanse the earth – the traditional narrative is reinterpreted with a few soap-opera twists, but peaceful regeneration does eventually come about.

Rudyard Kipling, whose Sussex home was occasionally flooded by the River Dudwell, offers up an example from earlier in this tradition. He paints the floods as a celestial force for deliberate destruction to keep man’s ambitions in check, followed by renewal: ‘The waters shall not reckon twice / For any work of man’s device … The floods shall sweep corruption clean … That more the meadows may be green.’ Kipling would have scoffed at the modern notion that floods should be prevented by people – and that any man or woman could be held responsible for them. He parodied the contemporary approach in his short story, ‘My Son’s Wife’. A gentleman of the ‘Immoderate Left’ from Hampstead – which coming from Kipling was perhaps the worst insult imaginable – encounters a flood while settling into his new country home. ‘This is too absurd,’ the gentleman exclaims at the sight of water creeping up his lawn. ‘There ought to be some decently thought-out system – for – for dealing with this sort of thing.’

Still, it seems to me that the contemporary response to flooding shares something with the biblical narrative. When water breaches its banks and roams through our houses and roads an explanation is felt to be required. The only difference is that what was once put down to an act of God is deposited instead on the rather narrower shoulders of government bureaucrats – which makes sense, since the ‘system’ we rely on to keep order is no longer divine, but human. Floods are no longer a punishment, but a sign of our failure to keep up the order that we normally impose on the world. Redemption must still follow in the form of fertile land and new homes – we have come from ordered worlds and to them we must return.


How well does either of these narratives describe the reality of flooding? I haven’t returned to my grandmother’s house for some time, though it’s just around the corner from my parents’ home, which I visit regularly. They tell me that a fresh carpet has been laid down. The heather must be in bloom and the hydrangeas over-spilling their beds without anyone there to chop them back for bouquets. There has been vague talk of renting the place out or selling it on, but the reluctance is beginning to creep back into our voices, and I have been warned, once more, not to raise the subject in front of my grandmother. We have crept our way back to the antediluvian state of affairs, but there is no more order to it than there ever was.

One of my favourite flood narratives comes from Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’. The amorous Nicholas, hoping to sleep with his landlord’s wife, Alisoun, devises a plan to keep her jealous husband, John, out of the house. He persuades John that a flood is coming and that he must wait on the roof in a kneading tub. When poor John falls off the roof the next morning, convinced that the flood has arrived, the sexually sated Alisoun and Nicholas turn things to their advantage: ‘They tolden every man that he was wood … The folk gan laughen at his fantasye’.

Chaucer inverts the biblical story of moral renewal – the final scene depicts a triumph of confusion. John is deemed mad and Alisoun escapes all punishment while Nicholas is famously branded on the arse in her place by Absolon, a rival lover who has in turn been deceived into kissing Alisoun’s ‘nether ye’ instead of her mouth. Chaos, rather than order, is the norm. John and Absolon both buy into the illusions that Alisoun and Nicholas present to them – a flood on the one hand, a sweet kiss on the other. Both come off the worse for taking a simple, ordered narrative at face value.

Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping examines this desire to impose order on the world as a way of coping with the instability and isolation of life. The ‘housekeeping’ that her characters engage in is literally pitted against a flood as the lake creeps up on a small town, leaving barns and sheds ‘like so many spilled and foundered arks’. Robinson – an unabashedly Christian writer – is deliberate in her choice of words. When the family are confined to the first floor, Lucille wishes to find other people camping on higher ground but her aunt Sylvie prefers to remain. ‘It’s the loneliness,’ Sylvie observes of her niece; ‘Loneliness bothers lots of people’.

It is a story of human organisation humbled, in the religious tradition, but when this flood recedes the town is left ‘stripped and blackened and warped and awash in mud’. There is no regeneration to be found, and no purpose or blame to be sought. As Lucille begins to regard other people with the calm with which one on a sinking boat ‘might have regarded a not-too-distant shore’, her sister Ruthie is drawn to their aunt, who has always lived as a drifter. She finds that ‘If you do not resist the cold, but simply relax and accept it, you no longer feel the cold as discomfort’.

For Robinson an ark is at best an illusion of safety and at worst a prison, and attempts to build a safe and ordered space can keep you tethered. When I think of my childhood home, I wonder whether floods are best seen as a reminder that the mutability of water is the stuff of life. Illusions of firm ground and an ordered house are swept away in a moment by rising water.