Book progress

A few weeks ago, I posted on here about the terrible flood events of January 1953 that devastated parts of the east coast of England and the Netherlands. In England over 300 people lost their lives in one terrifying night and in the Netherlands the death toll exceeded 1,800. This event is rarely talked about in England and I am not sure why as events which have caused much less loss of life and less destruction and which also took place a generation or more ago, command much greater pubic attention. Perhaps it is the ‘no-fault’ nature of the disaster – it was a natural event, not caused by negligence, corruption or malicious intent, unlike say the bombing of the Pan Am aeroplane over Lockerbie in 1988 (270 deaths) or the Aberfan colliery disaster in 1966 (144 deaths). I do not wish to ‘rank’ these events in terms only of death toll – the Aberfan disaster killing as it did mostly schoolchildren is particularly horrific – but I am simply somewhat surprised that it seems to have slipped from memory.

The morning after – Canvey Island after the devastating floods on 31 January 1953

The loss of life associated with the 1953 storms could not be said to be entirely ‘no fault’. Enquiries found a woeful lack of a meaningful communication system, and the fact that the events took place over the weekend (meaning that officials were not working) certainly contributed to the death toll. Perhaps it was the proximity of these events to the second world war that has contributed in part to the amnesia; tens of thousands of civillians died in the war that had ended only eight years earlier. It is also likely that the lack of investment in maintaining civil defences both during and after the weather contributed to the ease with which flood barriers were breached.

So, as you can see, I’ve been doing research! I’ve read pretty much all the main sources on the subject, and watched quite a lot of newsreel footage from the time. I’d like to tell you about one of the books I read, which had a section on the 1953 floods but which was about the tides more generally. Tide: The Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth, written by Hugh Aldersley-Williams, a scholar of natural sciences, and published in 2017 is a brilliant read. I borrowed it from my local library, intending to read only the section relevant to my research, but I ended up working through the whole book, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The author is an intelligent and witty writer whose knowledge and authority on his subject is slightly concealed by his humour and deft use of language. It is scholarly work dressed up as an entertaining read, and there aren’t many serious works of non-fiction you can say that about.

The author looks at the link between the sea on earth and our moon, something I had never before understood fully. He also explores the cultural impact of the tides, particularly on nations like the United Kingdom which has such a long coastline relative to its size. Before clocks were invented, “measuring time” was meaningless. People lived their lives by natural phenomena such as the position of the sun, the phase of the moon, the behaviour of wildlife, and the ebb and flow of the tides. Clocks have largely inured us to these movements.

“The coast of the British Isles is one of the most tidally lubricated coasts anywhere in the world.”

Hugh Aldersley-Williams

Hugh Aldersley-Williams writes in detail about historical events that have been influenced by tidal flows, such as the cholera epidemic in London in the 1880s (construction of a sewerage system in the west end of the city meant that the tides of the Thames forced river water into the drinking water in the east of the city). The success of the D-Day landings in northern France in 1944 depended heavily on the accurate prediction of the tides. The author also travelled widely to investigate tidal phenomena all over the world and writes finally (and inevitably) about rising sea levels and the impact of the tides on low-lying coastal communities. Devastating flooding in Europe this last winter has given us a foretaste of this.

This book was an absolutely brilliant read and I recommend it highly.

Another book I read as part of my research and which I did not enjoy was Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke. I read it because it is set in Canvey Island, the location of my own book. However, I found that this book did not keep my interest – the plot was thin and the premise weak. I hope my own book portrays Canvey Island in a more positive light than Vulgar Things. I don’t like criticising books so I won’t say any more.

I recently attended an online writing class with Kate Mosse and Maggie O’Farrell. As writers of historical fiction they said that a book should wear its research thinly. We have all, I am sure, read books where the author is just dying to tell you everything they have found out about their topic! As a novice writer I need to be very careful about this. So, it’s the school Easter holidays and I am using this time to take a break between completing the research phase and beginning the writing phase of my book. Writing starts next week! I have cleared my diary for the next month or two and have high expectations of myself. There is danger to this of course; I could hit creative blocks, or plot problems, and will get myself in a panic about not hitting my daily word count! We will see.

Wish me luck!

The East Coast Floods- 1953

This week was the 69th anniversary of the worst natural disaster to befall Britain in the 20th century, one of the worst ever in fact. On the night of the 31st of January 1953 a storm that began as a depression in the north Atlantic, moved to the North Sea and rolled down the east coast of Britain. Earlier in the day, the storm had already claimed 135 lives when it caused fatal damage to the MV Princess Victoria, an early roll-on/roll-off style ferry operating between Stranraer and Larne in the Irish Sea. This alone was Britain’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

The MV Princess Victoria sank 69 years ago. The story was covered on the Belfast Live news website earlier this week (Image: Mirrorpix)

Tragically, even though the Princess Victoria sank on the afternoon of 31 January, poor communications meant that news of the storm did not reach communities on the east coast. If you look at a map of Britain and the north west coast of Europe you will notice the dramatic narrowing of the North Sea as it reaches Kent and northern France at the English channel. The bit between East Anglia and the Netherlands is shaped like a funnel. And that is exactly how it behaved on the night of 31 January. By tragic coincidence, the storm occurred on the night of a new moon spring tide, when the waters reach high levels anyway. It was, to use an extremely apt expression, ‘a perfect storm’. A huge surge of water could not escape through the channel fast enough and the funnel overflowed in dramatic fashion. The water had nowhere else to go except on to the low-lying flatlands of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Lincolnshire, and most devastatingly of all, the Netherlands.

Because it occurred in the middle of the night, many homes flooded while their inhabitants slept. Many of those coastal homes were poorly built, timber framed and single-storey. In all, 326 people died in Britain. A further 230 deaths at sea can be attributed the storm. In the Netherlands, there were 1,863 deaths, much of the land being below sea level. The Netherlands has been no stranger to devastating flooding over the centuries and so it has long taken its sea defences programme very seriously, but even the renowned Dutch ingenuity at dealing with the sea was no match for a surge which saw sea levels on that night rise to 5.6m above the norm.

Exhibit at the Watersnoodsmuseum, Ouwerkerk, Netherlands

I know Zeeland, the southernmost region of the Netherlands and the worst affected by the floods, well; I have been visiting it regularly for twenty years. And I first learned about the 1953 storm surge when I was there in 2003 and there were commemorations to mark the 50th anniversary. There is a museum which tells the story of that night in fascinating and very poignant detail. The last time I was there they had a virtual reality exhibit where you could see what it was like to be surrounded by rising waters inside your own home. It seemed to me extraordinary that I had never heard about the disaster at home, even though I grew up in Essex.

I have been wanting to write about this neglected piece of British history for a very long time and have been ruminating on a novel which I had hoped might be publishable on the 70th anniversary of the disaster (this time next year) – if I’ve any hope of meeting that deadline I’d better get my skates on! In December I made a long-delayed trip to Canvey Island in Essex to undertake some research. Sadly, the Canvey Island Heritage Museum, the only museum I know of in the UK which has information about the floods, has been closed since the start of the pandemic. But just walking around the island (it is tiny) gave me a powerful sense of what it might have been like. Canvey Island lies in the Thames estuary and is separated from its nearest town, Benfleet, by a wide creek. Until the early 1900s, the only means of access was via a causeway at low tide, on foot or by horse and cart. Canvey lies barely above sea level and 58 people on the island lost their lives on the night of 31 January, many of them children. It suffered the greatest loss of any of the towns and villages affected that night.

Canvey Island flooding 1953
Flooding in Cavey Island, 1953 (Image: PA/PA Archive)

The memories of the island’s terrible experience are still palpable today. Along the sea wall, a powerful mural depicts some of the stories of that terrible night. I remember visiting Canvey as a child – it was a sort of seaside place. No-one would disagree that the island has seen better days; people think that the south-east of England is all bright lights, prosperity and high property values, but it isn’t. The sense of community remains powerful, however, and, sitting in the local library poring over their collection of books about the flood I was struck by the sense of separateness felt, as a mark of pride. I hope the pictures below convey a small part of its specialness.

Images from the Sea Wall murals on Canvey Island, an example of the steel gates that now provide protection to the islanders, and houses lying on land that is as low as the level of the sea on the other side of the wall.

The trip gave me a powerful impetus to get the book started – and I have! I am writing this post now, partly to put a marker down that, hey, I’m doing this! Trying to make myself accountable. But also to draw attention to this terrible disaster that seems to have slipped from our national memory.

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