London disaster porn, or how I learnt to stop worrying and love the flood

I bought this book the other day. How could I not? Everything from the cover to the title to the name of the author screams ‘BUY ME!’, and so I did.

The Big Wave: The Day London Collapsed is, as you might have guessed, about a tsunami that destroys London. Here is a choice paragraph:

Somewhere twenty or so feet below us, under uncountable tons of debris, was the street we had once known as Haymarket; the grey hill to our right was largely the remains of Canada House; the ravine in front would be Sussex Place and beyond that – at the moment not visible – would be the National Gallery. The city we knew had been buried, the streets engulfed by debris, wiped out of existence. I stared at the grey and broken landscape attempting to absorb the scale of the disaster. It was too much. It was too big.

Hot stuff, huh?

And it got me thinking. Not about the danger of a seismic episode taking place ten miles off the Thames Estuary, sending shock waves through the city, felling major landmarks and preempting a giant tidal wave that turns the entire London basin into a corpse-riddled swamp, but about authors who love destroying London.

Will Self’s The Book Of Dave, Richard Jeffries’s After London and JG Ballard’s The Drowned World all take place in a London destroyed by flood (interestingly, Conrad Voss Bark’s The Big Wave is the only book I own that actually describes the flood taking place), and all are marked by a relish in seeing the city brought low. It’s all very Biblical.

‘The deserted and utterly extinct city of London was under his foot,’ writes Jeffries in After London, an almost unreadable Victorian novel. ‘He had penetrated into the midst of that dreadful place…’ We never find out what has destroyed London other than some sort of catastrophic flood, but Jeffries carefully draws an entirely new, almost medieval, world, which he clearly prefers to the Victorian one he has demolished. It’s a bit like John Christopher’s Prince In Waiting trilogy, only nowhere near as good.

Ballard’s dense and difficult 1963 novel The Drowned World is little better. Again, after catastrophic flooding, London has been replaced by a fetid swamp, something that Ballard seems remarkably sanguine about, as this spot of dialogue makes clear.

‘Do you know where we are, the name of this city?’ he asked.

‘Part of it used to be called London; not that it matters.’

Later, in the book’s most evocative passages, the characters walk through drained streets around Leicester Square. ‘Dying fish and marine plants expired in the centre of the roadways… they stood in the entrance to one of the huge cinemas, sea urchins and cucumbers flickering faintly across the tiled floor.’

Both these books were obvious influences for Self’s recent The Book Of Dave, which takes places on the island of Ham. This is Self’s name for the high-lying remains of Hampstead Heath, which overlook a London that has been replaced by a lagoon after, you guessed it, catastrophic flooding. Self doesn’t exhibit quite so much glee at the demise of London, although he draw a strong contrast between the idyllic, unquestioning life of those on Ham and the manic contemporary Londoners, brains overfilled with unnecessary knowledge, that we meet in flashback. One of them, the titular Dave, has been driven insane by the intensity of modern living.

So all three, in their different ways, present the London-free future as being preferable to the present. And if they are accurate predictions of the future, perhaps the following shouldn’t freak me out quite as much as it does.

Pleasant dreams!

About these ads

10 responses to “London disaster porn, or how I learnt to stop worrying and love the flood

  1. I have to get that first book, although I mis-read the word ‘shatteringly’ on first glimpse.

    I started reading After London about half a year ago and am still working my way through its stolid prose. It’s starting to pick up now that the proponent has decided to actually do something. It feels like a version of Lord of the Rings, where the hobbits stay in Hobbiton until the second half of Return of the King.

    Ballard’s book was just dull. Wasted opportunity.

  2. Yes, but London being London, everyone will just start walking to work, and we’ll have forgotten the whole thing within a week…

  3. good stuff pete. have you read maggie gee’s ‘the flood’?

  4. ‘The Flood’ sounds great, will get it now.

    I hope the cover features a picture of a collapsing Nelson’s Column.

  5. food for thought- I get extremely uncomfortable watching any disaster porn around the thames barrier- like the episode of spooks where someone tried to blow it up- I just hope they have a lot of security down there.

    i was chatting to someone during the height of the financial mess and saying what we should all really do is go and buy houses with small holdings and grow food so we could survive mega inflation and the like (not that I overeact you understand) but honestly I wouldn’t want to leave London and things would have to get really bad- the idea of it not being there is unthinkable.

  6. There was a copy of London After The Bomb in my school library – I read it when I was 13. It scared the crap out of me.

  7. Oh – and talking of disaster porn, there were the 70s (pre- Barrier) GLC public information films about what to do if the Thames flooded, which ended in a lingering shot of a child’s doll floating on the Thames. I think that image was also used in posters. I wonder if any of those still exist…

  8. A-ha! The GLC London flood video has popped up on YouTube…

  9. I remember Conrad Voss Bark as the BBC’s Parliamentary Correspondent in the ’60s. Not that I actually remember him as that, but my dad found his name irresistibly funny, and I suppose it must have stuck in my infant mind. Until I saw obituaries of him in 2000, I don’t think I was even sure how you spelled his name. Never come across the book, though. I’ll pick it up if I see a copy around…

  10. Conrad Voss Bark’s name IS irresistably funny, although I had no idea he was such a distinguished journalist.

    And many thanks Darryl for posting that video link, it should give Rose nightmares for months.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s