Cockermouth floods: monsoon as metaphor
These aren’t the worst floods England has seen, yet they are being turned into a symbol of human vulnerability.
It’s been raining in north-west England. A lot. The result has been the death of a police officer and misery for thousands of people flooded out of their homes. However, the deluge in Cumbria is not – despite what the wall-to-wall media coverage implies – the end of the world. It is, though, a very good example of how temperate, mild-and-damp Britain doesn’t handle extreme weather very well, and how the media loves to make an enormous song-and-dance about it.
The situation in Cumbria is as follows: PC Bill Barker was killed when a bridge in the town of Workington collapsed, due to the pressure of the river beneath. Barker had been directing traffic on the bridge. As a result, checks have been ordered on around 1,800 other bridges in Cumbria. Around 1,300 homes were flooded after record levels of rainfall on Thursday and Friday. And with damage caused further afield in southern Scotland and Wales, too, reports suggest a final bill for insurance claims of between £50million and £100million.
The deluge has been a major disruption for people in the area, causing many to leave their homes and to lose their businesses. Yet still, the media focus has been extraordinary. The small town of Cockermouth has been flooded twice. Having survived the combination of river water and torrential rain, the town’s people are now inundated by the nation’s media. We have had harrowing footage of mildly upset people sitting in community centres drinking cups of tea and chatting, and harrowing images of shops with soggy stock. Anyone familiar with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the Asian tsunami may be scratching their heads at the attention that this little town (population: 8,000) has received.
Then again, the modern media likes nothing better than a set-piece story that can be wrung out for days on end, like the sodden carpets of Cockermouth’s homes. And the little tale here, dripping with metaphor, is that we humans are ultimately terribly vulnerable to Nature’s fury. This may not be so much a National Geographic-style disaster, but it will have to do. Never mind the devastation of a tropical cyclone, the flooding at Cockermouth has been squeezed into the little pot marked ‘triumph over tragedy’. For now, we have to hear every minor tragedy. In the coming months, expect many more Return-to-Cockermouth pieces as people ‘put their lives and their community back together’.
In an age where the media seems incapable of giving us the big picture, it has taken to giving us the little picture instead. We are asked to imagine having to spend months in a cramped-but-modern mobile home while the insurance pays for your house to be fixed or your business to be put back together with a shiny new coat of paint. Of course, no one can help but feel considerable sympathy for people whose town has been turned upside down – but the events of the past few days hardly warrant this kind of coverage either. The Blitz spirit has been replaced, in the minds of hacks at least, by the Fall-to-Bitz spirit.
In this monsoon-as-metaphor, the other big idea is climate change. If you ask any sensible scientist or weather expert, they will tell you that there is no way of telling if this particular event has been caused by manmade greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, it seems rather hard to believe that the relatively small recent shift in global temperatures could cause the spate of annual floods we’ve seen over the past few years.
Yet that hasn’t stopped many people from trying. Geoffrey Lean in the Daily Telegraph assured us ‘there was more where that came from’, while a distasteful cartoon in the Guardian suggested that the death of PC Barker represented the real ‘price of carbon’. It’s all reminiscent of the comment made by green adviser and solar panel beater, Jeremy Leggett, after the floods in 2007: ‘The drumbeat of disaster that heralds global warming quickened its tempo this week; some parts of Britain had a sixth of their annual rainfall in 12 hours…. It has all been foreseen, and for far too long.’
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Ironically, the big issue three years ago was the fact that London and the south-east would struggle to get enough water in the future because a major source of water supply – winter rain – had dried up. Now we’re promised ever-wetter winters and parched summers. It’s a flexible beast, this manmade climate-change alarm, but it always seems to involve lots of moralising about how we live.
Much more likely is that these floods and droughts are caused by old-fashioned, run-of-the-mill climate change of just the kind that occurs no matter how many cheap flights we take or how little we recycle. Some of those changes last a year or two, some last for decades. Local weather patterns shift all the time. Add to that the changing fashions of housebuilding that have encouraged more people to aim for that ‘desirable, riverside residence’, and the (avoidable) problems of drainage created as more of the country is built on, and you have greater potential for flooding of inhabited areas than in the past.
And if there is a change, is it really quite as dramatic as the ‘once in a thousand years’ headlines we’ve been getting about Cockermouth? The town sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Cocker and the Derwent, in one of the wettest parts of the UK. It’s also the birthplace of poet William Wordsworth, whose image of wandering ‘lonely as a cloud’ seems odd in a soggy bit of the country where clouds are rarely lonely. The nearby town of Seathwaite may, in the past few days, have had the heaviest 24-hour rainfall ever recorded in the UK, but it is, in any event, the wettest inhabited town in the country (average rainfall: 3,300mm per year - about seven times as much as London gets).
In Cumbria, it never rains but it pours. This area has had plenty of deluges in the past: ‘There were floods from Keswick to the coast… rivers swollen from rain in the hills were raised still further by 5.2 inches (132mm) recorded at the castle in six days. Main Street was flooded from the Police Station to Wordsworth House and the water was over Barrel Bridge and halfway up the stairs of High Sand Lane houses.’ This report from Cockermouth is from December 1932, not last weekend, and there were major floods in 1918 and 1938, too.
Nationally, the benchmark for twentieth-century flooding was set in 1947, when a very rapid snowmelt led to record water levels from York in the north to Gloucester and London in the south. Even then, a Guardian piece about the 1947 event quotes a farmer at the time trying to make light of the whole thing: ‘I was in the 1915 flood and this was only a pond by comparison.’ Pleut ça change…, as the French might say.
Flooding is not new; it is not a punishment from on high; nor is it the inevitable payback for wanting to drive cars, heat our homes or leave the TV on standby. Small towns like Cockermouth deserve to have better flood protection, not to be turned into a cardboard-cutout tragedy for the benefit of lazy media editors. Yet the spirit of the age is that we are weak, not strong, and any attempt to overcome natural problems will only lead to eco-blowback, of which Cockermouth’s floods are just one small example. If you think that’s bad, we’re told, just wait till things get really bad. It’s a kind of green, global version of ‘wait till your father gets home’.
If we do want to learn some lessons from these floods, let’s remember that economic development allows us to control natural events. Combined with some good ol’ fashioned human resilience, we can be masters of nature, not its victims.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.