Bubbling under

David Wheatley

If the human brain is three quarters water, we’re never more than a quarter of ourselves away from drowning. Scowling at the drumtaps of rain on my skull recently, I feared this already slender percentage was rapidly losing ground. I’ve spent a lot of my life both under water and (as a keen swimmer) underwater, but this felt like more of the first than was strictly necessary. The month of June had been the wettest on record in Britain and Hull, where I live, was in the process of flooding. This should not, I told myself, have come as a surprise. ‘Build your cities on the slopes of volcanoes!’ exhorted Nietzsche, but in the absence of any volcanoes the twelfth-century burghers of East Yorkshire settled on a flood plain of clay and silt instead. All that’s missing for full-blown swamp conditions are the mosquitoes. Or maybe not: William Empson had a pet theory (one of many) that Andrew Marvell suffered from malaria picked up in the swamps of Hull. As landscapes go, it’s dauntingly flat; the Humber Bridge and the odd council estate tower block aside, Hull jealously clings to the horizontal axis, though even that takes an effort it cannot always sustain. Revisiting his classic 1969 collection Terry Street for a 1994 edition, Douglas Dunn described his sense of the ground falling away under his feet as he walked the streets of Hull. Just how low-lying the place is becomes apparent in the East Hull village of Paull, where passing ships loom up suddenly above the horizon. Behind the flood walls flows the Humber, ‘deeper than deep in joys without number’, as Stevie Smith put it in a poem that wouldn’t have had far to reach for a rhyme to describe its natural colour, a churning muddy umber. The river takes its name from one Humber the Hun, who drowned trying to invade. In Hull you don’t even need to be alive to drown. During the Civil War the city was besieged when local parlimentarians closed its gates against King Charles. Attempting to write something about this recently I found an account of the city flooding: ‘every man can dig water at his door; and they cannot bury a corpse there but the grave first drowns him ere it burys him’. ‘Ambition would have us die in thunderstorms / like Jung and Mahler’, that most rain-addicted of Hull poets, Peter Didsbury, has written. As the showers dragged on and got heavier, I thought he might be about to have his wish granted.

Life in this part of the world is a watery affair at the best of times. Down the estuary from Hull lies Goole, which has long traded on its wateriness by jocosely styling itself the ‘Venice of the North’; this raises the important question of whether Venice reciprocates by calling itself ‘the Goole of the Adriatic’. Erosion is gnawing away at the outlying villages and long-forsaken holiday resorts of the East Riding such as Withernsea and Aldbrough, whose coast road abruptly vanishes halfway along like a chewed-off biscuit, and whose beach is littered with washed-up shells from an army firing range now underwater. Also among the East Riding villages to flood was the appropriately named Burtwick, though long-time butt of adolescent jokes Wetwang remained above water. Thirty miles down the road from Hull is Spurn Point, a mysterious sliver of land that juts into the North Sea and puts in an appearance at the end of Philip Larkin’s ‘Here’ (‘Here is unfenced existence: / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach’). Nightly, ferries from Hull round the point and head south for the lowlands of Holland, a country Marvell once called the ‘ingested vomit of the sea’. Spurn Point has long had a peregrine existence, drifting westwards and losing land to the coastal drift as it does so. In the middle ages the town of Ravenser Odd sat precariously on the tip of the point and throve as a port until, as the chronicler of Meaux Abbey records (shades of the Hull siege again), ‘The inundations of the sea and the Humber destroyed to its foundations the chapel of Ravenser Odd, built in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that the bodies and bones of the dead were horribly apparent …’

Back in Hull’s old town, the confluence of the rivers Hull and Humber is marked by a huge floodgate that backs onto a laneway called Rotenhering Staith. I’ve never seen the floodgate in use, and in any case it wasn’t the rivers that were the problem as the rains continued to pelt, or, as they say here, ‘sile’ down. The ‘crap towns’ survey which placed Hull at the top (meaning the bottom) of its list a few years ago mentioned the ‘smell of death’ in the air, a reference to the real problem, the city’s pungent drains. If the rain wasn’t draining, that didn’t stop it from being exhausting. ‘Are we not poets and pluviophiles?’ Peter Didsbury had the nerve to muse to me at the height of the downpours, me hatless and in trainers (silly me), he inside several layers of raincoat. As water began to gather and pool, one unfortunate man got his foot entangled in a drain he was trying to clear and drowned. Ninety of the city’s 105 schools flooded, causing over a hundred million pounds’ worth of damage, and the final tally of homes flooded was just under seven thousand. Outside the Costcutters on my street corner an enthusiastic mongrel splashed in a temporary lake, while inside the shop two-for-one offers and ready meals bobbed about between the aisles. My house was spared by the flooding and I felt bad in a suitably apologetic way that among the chief inconveniences I suffered was the temporary closure of my local swimming pool. I found another one open only to discover a crowd of shivering swimmers hovering by the poolside: an ‘incident’, otherwise a slick of vomit, had put paid to the swimming for the evening. Swimming in the floodwaters, we were warned, also carried its health risks. Readers of the popular ‘chavtowns’ and ‘chavscum’ websites will know all about the semi-feral teenagers on Hull’s council estates, and the sight of bare-chested males swimming and rafting down the street hinted uncomfortably at an East Yorkshire zombie flick in the making, with even more savage than usual Staffies and Rotties trained to go for the brain. I was feeling dispirited and powerless in a soggy kind of way. As my personal flood relief effort I decided to go check on my local and help dispose of any surplus liquids sloshing around there. Hull doesn’t have a cathedral, but Alan the barman at my personal cathedral of Hullness, the Whalebone pub, explained to me how the pub cellar pumps out all the liquid that runs off from the bar, including the slops from the pint of Erdinger he had just pulled me. This only served to strengthen a sense of my life in Hull as being essentially at sea, suspended over a tide of bilge.

As the waters receded the badly damaged Bransholme and Orchard Park estates took on an al fresco feel, as sofas and wardrobes sat on front lawns awaiting the rag and bone man or the looter. One street on the dividing line between Hull City Council (to which its tenants pay rent) and the East Riding (to which they pay council tax) found itself equally spurned by both, the council’s contribution amounting to a solitary bottle of Dettol to help mask the smell. In an attempt to hurry its relief programme along the council began distributing aid of £100 to affected families, which at a pinch might do for a deposit on a dehumidifier. A glut of small ads for caravans began to appear in the local paper, and this may or may not have been related to the bizarre terror alert that struck the city several weeks later when a pensioner rang a caravan company from its car park and announced his intention to blow himself up with gas canisters (they talked him out of it in the end). Studying the paper’s slew of flood stories I found the endless family group shots bringing out my inner semiotician: husband and wife glumly confronting the empty space where the telly had been, supportive grandparent optional, vacant-eyed teens held in place by a stonily draped parental hand.

Sky News presenter Kay Burley, who announced during the September 11 attacks that terrorists had ravaged ‘the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States’, was quick off the mark to compare the scene to post-Katrina New Orleans. Armoured personnel carriers had, after all, been patrolling the streets. The Bishop of Carlisle followed Pat Robertson’s post-September 11 lead and linked natural disaster to God’s anger at increased gay rights. I’ve yet to see the tally of flood-damaged Jeanette Winterson novels and Judy Garland posters, but any homeless Christians in the region will have lots of time on their hands to ponder the necessary evil of divine friendly fire. ‘This is working very well for them,’ Barbara Bush said with sublime insensitivity of the New Orleans flood victims who moved to Houston, Texas, and many Hull flood victims have been housed in city hotels, where I’m told a party atmosphere of sorts can be found. There has even been talk of mooring a cruise ship in the marina, which might offer valuable test conditions for one of New Labour’s supercasinos. In the States, the post-New Orleans hysteria was dominated by tales of rape and even cannibalism, which gave way in time to gripes about welfare scroungers blowing their flood aid on hookers and roulette tables. In Hull, one of the most vocal flood victims has been an unemployed woman without house insurance who collared Hull East MP John Prescott on air, demanding to know who was going to bail her out, so to speak. Hullonians of the ‘name and address supplied’ variety were soon writing to the local paper decrying her something-for-nothing mentality (though as irresponsibility goes, it hardly compares to that of the council, which was revealed to have opted against insuring its housing stock and most of its public buildings too).

For all Hull’s tribal self-pride, which is ferocious, the awareness of external neglect and indifference is an important part of the city’s identity too. Hence the city’s perennial obsession with ‘getting Hull on the map’, which raises the paradoxical prospect of Hull getting ‘on the map’ by virtue of parts of it disappearing off the map altogether. The floods also coincided with a report from a government think tank that showed, yet again, that Hull has one of the highest rates in the country of benefit claimants and adults without qualifications, to add to the proverbial statistics of Hull being England’s fattest city, with the country’s worst schools, lowest church attendances and highest rate of teenage pregnancies. A crap town once again, in other words, fit only for chavs in their ‘fuck hutches’, as A.L. Rowse used to call council estates.

The much higher watermark of coverage achieved by the subsequent floods in Gloucester and Oxford would seem only to bear out Hull’s underperformer status, even where disaster is concerned. The presence of a scenically beleaguered cathedral might have quickened the pulse of media concern. As it is, it looks like the best the city can do on the news agenda is bubble under. One of John Prescott’s more amusing maulings of the English language came when he stepped off a plane and expressed his relief at being back on ‘terra cotta’, which may just have been his Hull way of warning us against taking the ground beneath our feet too much for granted. But combine Hull’s high-risk location, global warming and rising sea levels, and soon enough it will join the ranks of Ravenser Odd, Monkwike, Tharlesthorpe, Orwithfleete and all the other curiously named Holderness villages that have been reclaimed by the sea. By way of consolation, they have North Sea gas-fields named after them while local history brochures tell tales of submerged church bells that can still be heard ringing. Among the villages currently on the front line is Kilnsea, whose residents were not at all pleased to find a government study recommended the abandonment of the village, even as measures were being put in place to protect its wildbird nesting grounds. Hull has plenty of exotic bird life, but neither it nor the city’s human inhabitants have been placed under preservation order, not quite yet. A Pastor Niemöller reference is irresistible here: first the waters came for Kilnsea, but I didn’t speak up because I’d always thought it was a bit of a dump, then they came for Costcutters but I didn’t speak up because I thought their orange juice was overpriced … And at night, the brochures will say, the sound of boy racers revving their engines in Asda car parks can clearly be heard from the end of Leeds pier.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 28 Autumn 2007