A Cosy Catastrophe

It’s been raining a lot here in Prague recently, to the point where I have been making my usual dumb joke about how if I had wanted weather like this I would have stayed in Scotland. The rain has gone on for well over a week now, sometimes a light drizzle, often a monsoonal downpour, pretty much always there. You can hear the quiet roar of it in the courtyard of our building at night. It’s like being caught beneath a very small waterfall. Whenever you go out for a walk there is always a faint hissing noise in the background. Against every window, the rain pitter-patters.

Of course, the river has been rising and rising, and, for those of us who remember 2002, that’s not a good sign. There’s a lovely pathway, wide as a street, that runs along the riverside near our flat. Cars can drive along it two abreast. At the weekends there is a farmer’s market there. At night in summer band’s sometimes play. There’s a cycle path and a large barge with a theatre and a cafe on it. When the weather is nice I take the baby for walks along the promenade, to where it joins up with another quiet path where people walk their dogs.

It’s not possible to do that at the moment. The whole area has disappeared beneath a flood of brown muddy water. The only thing visible are the tops of some metal signs. Ducks and swans now swim over the spots where they once waddled ashore to be fed.

A bit further down the river, near the The Dancing House is a bridge with a fine view of the gigantic white water rapids caused by the river in spate. An angry river is not like an angry ocean. The waves are stranger. There are areas where the water jets forward in a gigantic, unbroken curve, where the force of all those hundreds of tons of moving liquid makes it leap upward in a constant arc. Nearby are areas where the water is churned to white foam and right alongside those are muddy areas that look calm until you noticed the sinister power of the current. The flow is less visible to the naked eye but it is still there. Those things that look like floating branches turn out to be tree trunks carried from who knows where.

The Vlatva is normally a friendly presence in the city. Wide and calm, it runs through the town’s very heart. The castle looms over it. The Charles Bridge springs across it. Its banks are a place where you push the pram, walk hand in hand with your wife, sit and have a beer or a coffee.

Its recent transformation has something of the ominous quality of a horror movie. You look at it and you worry. You see news stories about people being killed and houses vanishing. Helicopters circle overhead constantly. Sirens call out all the time. You find yourself thinking about getting in extra baby food just in case, the kind that comes in glass jars, not powdered milk because if the power goes that will be difficult to make. You remember when the streets were filled with water and inflatable boats and Prague suddenly looked like Venice. The refrain from London Calling loops through your head— and meeee, I live by the river.

Radka and I took the baby out for a walk yesterday, over that bridge near the rapids. As the rain soaked through my coat, I found myself thinking about cosy catastrophes, of John Wyndham and John Christopher, of Ballardian Drowned Worlds. It was an obvious thought to a man of my generation and reading habits. I thought this must be what one of those things feel like in the early stage. What is ominous is that there is nothing you can really do. Everything is so normal, but its normalcy intensified. It’s only raining, its just raining more. The river is not its old friendly self. What was familiar is now a little threatening, like a twisted reflection of your hometown seen in a bad dream.

And yet the same TV that brings in all these shots of a country slowly vanishing under water shows you something else. You see pensioners on sticks and zimmer frames being calmly evacuated from those places by the river. You see flood barriers being built or moved into place. The helicopters are overhead, the troops are on standby. The whole vast slow organism of civil society moves in its sluggish way to deal with the problem. The metro may be closed but extra trams have been laid on to carry folks into work. People may have died but people are being saved. Things go on.

(Radka put up some pics here.)

14 Replies to “A Cosy Catastrophe”

  1. At least you’re safe from newspapers invoking the Blitz Spirit, and wondering where the stiff upper lip has gone.
    Thanks for this word picture of places I’ve grown very fond of in the last decade or two. Your thoughts on cosy catastrophe, and the slow slide into a drowned world made me think about climate change, and how the winters are getting wetter and warmer, and the summers are getting wetter and cooler. And with our brief perspective, I always distrust statements that start “When I were a lad…” but now the statistical record is starting to back up my memories of how you could fry an egg on the Glasgow pavements, back in the Summer of 78.

    I hope the rains stop, the waters subside, and that we can have a stroll along the river soon.

  2. My city, Sheffield, flooded in 2007, not long after I’d moved back here. Sheffield’s rivers are small, but defining. They occupy the floor of each of the valleys made by Sheffield’s seven hills. They were diverted and culverted, firstly to power industry, and then to take them under or around the urban sprawl that grew up in their place. When they flood, there is nowhere for them to go.

    Being so hilly, most of Sheffield was completely unaffected – except that any journey that took you downhill, say into town from any of the mostly more elevated suburbs, would end abruptly where the river’s level had overtaken the roads it normally flows under. I walked perhaps 250 yards (probably less than 50 yards as the crow flies) down from the unaffected side of a hill to the lower ground where the train line enters the Peak District towards Manchester, and everything was underwater. A mile or so downstream, a boy was swept away in a park, at a place where the river is normally nothing more than a stream for paddling. The stretch over which I looked is known, rather quaintly, as Totley Brook, again, nothing more than a stream for the most part, but it’s the beginnings of the River Sheaf, from which the city takes its name. It’s always been there, but it felt like no one really noticed until then.

    1. Hey Matt, My first thought was built on seven hills, just like Rome :). There’s a park here near our flat that is quite low lying. A very small stream runs through it. Suddenly its under water. Those little streams can be like tectonic fault lines in flood country.

      1. Believe it or not, I’d never actually heard of the seven hills thing until I left Sheffield at 19. I think seven hills is a more memorable label for outsiders, whereas locals tend to think of the five rivers, possibly because the hills don’t have names where the rivers do – Sheaf, Don, Porter, Rivelin, and Loxley – which also feature in place names and form part of rough geographical descriptions for those who know the city. Or maybe it’s the confluence of the two (pardon the pun) that locals really think of – the valleys.

        There’s a pub here called the Kelham Island Tavern which has a plaque outside marking the level of the 2007 floods. A foot or so above it is one marking the level of the 1864 floods. It took the floods for a native like me to realise that Kelham Island actually is an island, never mind that it’s the first thing visitors always ask: “Why’s it called Kelham Island?” It’s a man-made island, symptom and cause of all the things achieved by harnessing the rivers, and all the risks created, but I’d never really thought about it. These things are always reminders and realisations.

        1. And five rivers makes me think of a fantasy novel! This may be the influence of Robert Jordan showing. All those river names actually would do quite well in a fantasy novel. Mmmm…

          1. Ha! You’re not the first to say so. Not even, dare I say it, the first Black Library author. At the risk of terrible name-dropping, both Graham and Gav have made the same observation, albeit about areas rather than rivers in the first instance. Twentywell (Lane), Abbeydale and Millhouses, which all fall within a mile or so, prompted it from Graham, as did the front of a number of buses. I think there may have been some question about how come all the buses went to places in the Shire. The absolute treasure amongst Sheffield suburbs – happening to be both a tram and bus terminus – is Halfway. Halfway to where? No one knows. The sight of buses and trams with it on the front is a gem.

            I suspect in most cases, the effect is down to most places here having names of fairly obvious Germanic origin, with meanings that are often still readily apparent, though with just the right amount of quaintness, oddity or occasional obscurity about them, often with obvious groups of names surviving together, to give the impression of there being ‘something’ behind them, but it not being quite clear what: Woodseats, Woodhouse, Greenhill (though pronounced Grenell, often – archaic pronunciation always helps), Low Edges (or Lowedges – variant spellings always help, too), Ecclesall, Middlewood, Fulwood, Brincliffe, Endcliffe, Wharncliffe, Shirecliffe, Crosspool, Broomhill, Broomhall, Western Bank. A few sound like they obviously should mean something, without it being apparent quite what: Whirlow, Whirlowdale, Gleadless, Sharrow, Sharrowvale, Crookes, Crookesmoor. A few are particularly fanciful – Sky Edge – and a few have genuine historic resonance matching the suggestiveness of the name – Dore, for instance, does literally mean ‘door’, and being the terminus of significant north-south and east-west passes, it was where the King of Northumbria surrendered to Egbert, King of Wessex, effectively uniting Saxon England. There’s a stone marking it; I used to stroll up there and have my lunch sat opposite as often as I could when I lived near there.

            As with the presence of the rivers, a local can be blind to the novelty. I grew up here, but the relatively fantastical feel to the names didn’t really occur until pointed out. I moved house a couple of years ago and after I sent out the usual change of address emails, I got several replies asking if the address I’d given was of a real place: I’d just moved into Raven Road, Nether Edge. (There’s a grand old Victorian cemetery close by, between Nether Edge and Sharrowvale, as it happens – classically-themed, it has an Egyptian gate, and an Ouroboros Gate, and was mentioned in passing in one of the Hellboy graphic novels – and was built so that it’s main entrance is entered over a bridge, the Porter running below serving as its Styx. My, what were the Victorians smoking?)

            Ah, but I could go on. Invoice is in the post, by the way.

          2. The sad news is that my own blog will apparently not allow me to reply to your comment, Matt, so I am replying to my own :). I just wanted to say that reading all those place names I got the impression that Sheffield had been founded by hobbits. It was Shirecliff that tipped me over the edge I think. You’ll have me scouring maps of Sheffield for place names for my fantasy novels if this keeps up

            Ourboros Gate is a great name for a book by the way. I may have to steal it :).

          3. I shall be passing the gates shortly, Bill. On my way to Hunter’s Bar…

            (And I forgot Dore Moor. How could I forget Dore Moor? “To Dore Moor we will take you!” as the Black Rider was heard to say, of course.)

            I hear the flood got rather worse over night there – good luck and all the best.

    1. Thanks, Matt. I am presently contemplating a zombie novel set in a flooded Prague– it would make it a lot harder to run away from those slow moving brain-eaters. Sorry to hear about your burglary by the way. Hope everything is OK.

      1. Thanks. It’s a hassle, but I’m not much disturbed. We lost only things we can replace, and no one was hurt. The tree that fell over in my backyard that morning may wind up being more trouble in the end.

  3. There is that interesting phenomenon that seems to come with a gradual march to potential weather disasters. The increased tension and a quiet frantic energy that seems to permeate the area. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel more sensitive to that atmosphere after my girls came along. You don’t want to seem like an overactive alarmist, but you don’t want to get caught with your pants down either. I will do my best to fling copious amounts of good Karma your direction.

    Now on a less downer note. It does seem to have the side effect producing some great atmosphere flavor for writing. A zombie/dark magical outbreak in the middle of a natural disaster is a killer combo.

    As my granddad would say, “Wishing ya luck from me and mine, to you and yours.”

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