Thursday, November 8, 2007

Malcolm's retrospection

This posting was going to be about Michael Gove's piece on British cinema. That may still appear, if Malcolm gets his act together.

Then, tonight, came the Flood Warnings for the East Coast, for Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, the news that Rotterdam and the Thames Barrier were closing down.

Malcolm went to the Environment Agency and found that Wells-next-the-Sea had its own flood warning. And it all came back.

That's Wells, photographed from the air next morning, Sunday 1st February, 1953. Malcolm's down there somewhere, probably just left of the Church. We're looking a bit south of west from this angle.

Unlike today's prior advice, late that evening, nobody knew it was coming. There had been no warning. In those days there probably was no efficient way of conveying a warning, apart from the war-time air-raids sirens and the Lifeboat maroon ...

Electricity had only come to Wells a handful of years previously. And with the electric light came the blessedness of mains sewage (our society will collapse when the sewage pumps pack in). The nearest television transmitter was at extreme range (Tacolneston, near Norwich was not broadcasting until 1955): there may have been a couple of TV sets in town at best. To most 21st century bods, that must seem primeval.

Then, on a Saturday evening, the norm was to listen to "Sports Report" on the Light Programme for the football results (Norwich City had played a score draw with Coventry in the Third Division, South) then go to the Regal Cinema or to the pub, or just to doze at home. It was a foul night, squalls and gales, so the third choice appealed to most.

Around nine o'clock the film at the Regal stopped. This was not unusual with the temperamental equipment available, and evinced the customary groan and derisive whistles. The cinema manager came on the proscenium "stage", and, after a moment or so, was heard in something like silence. The tide was over the quay wall, he said, and the police were advising the closing of the cinema and all and sundry to go home...

There was an loud buzz of conversation as the audience made their way out.

Malcolm's younger self tried to make it down to the Quay, but the waves were already washing up Staithe Street, well past the "Golden Fleece". By the time he made it back to Church Plain, doubling back round the alley-ways, there was sea-water in Marsh Lane, blocking off the railway station in the dip at the bottom of Standard Road and the Polka. Until then nobody had pointed out this delineated the old medieval coastline before the seawalls had gone up, and that Ramm's Marsh was restored to just that.

Fred Hunt's chicken-run (that's his house next to St Nicholas's, in Church Street), was going from soggy to drowned. A lot of poultry would be lost that night: curiously, when the compensation was announced, they were all prime birds just coming into lay.

There was more than a trace of dampness on the floor of the cellar at the "Bowling Green", where Steward-and-Patteson mild-and-bitter was still drawn by hand. There would still be "K" winter ale available at that time of year.

The avatar that lies behind Malcolm (one wonders if there is a Sir John Wotton ambiguity in there) was told firmly to stay indoors. When he was not noticed, he slipped into his wellington boots and out the back-door (a zeugma, no less!). This was too good to miss.

By the time he got round the corner to the Church Hall, the choppy water was into his boots. There were many people in the street, all of whom knew him and ordered him home.

His personal hero of the night was Peter Sillitoe, who tried repeatedly to swim into his own house to rescue his sister Una's dolls.

After that the memories are more sketchy.

He recalls the north side of Freeman Street with the houses reduced to fascias, behind which was a foetid grey stew of broken possessions and wood. The old sea wall would have to be deliberately broken to allow that trapped water to escape.

The mile-long sea-wall, leading down to Wells beach, was broken into two places, muddy gaps a hundred yards wide, through which the tides would continue to pass for weeks to come.

Later the rescue services arrived. There were jet engines on trolleys used to try to dry out the old flint cottages: these would probably do more harm than good.

Months later the whole primary school was lined up in the playground and each child received a dole of coffee and currants. The currants were from California, and the coffee from the Emperor Haile Selassie. Yes, Malcolm and his fellows received food-aid from Ethiopia.

The whole story of the East Coast Floods is on the Eastern Daily Press website.

Today, Wells is a town of yachties and second-homers, down from London for the weekend. Behind that show of prosperity it is still a place of relative poverty and deprivation: have a look at the latest Ofsted findings for the Alderman Peel School:
Almost all students are of White British background. One student in five is eligible for free school meals. This is above average, but seasonal employment patterns mean that more students experience social and economic disadvantage. Students' attainment on entry to the school is below average, with relatively few attaining beyond the expected level for their age. Just over 7% of students have statements of special educational needs.
The year of the 1953 Flood, Malcolm's cohort was about to go into the "top class", Mrs Self's class (Mrs Self of the "Ship Inn", a decent pub later to fall on hard times as the rebuilt "Ark Royal"), at Wells County Primary School. By modern standards, classes were over-large. There was the hurdle of the 11+. Half of Malcolm's class went on to Fakenham Grammar School, and many to professional careers. That is why this blog is here. As Malcolm and his professorial brother have often speculated: how could a school where none of the teachers, except perhaps the headmaster who seemed not to teach much, had any professional qualifications, do so well by its students?

Last weekend the Sunday Times property supplement featured a building site on the front at Wells:
Perhaps by the 6 a.m., high tide tomorrow morning, there may be a further item to be entered under "The Problems" there.

Back in 1953, there were two-up, two down cottages going for a couple of hundred pounds. Probably the whole town could have been buyable for £350,000. Sphere: Related Content

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