Taken at the Flood

 .

.

.

there is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

:

flood17

.

.

.

over a decade ago, in 2002, river Vltava flooded.

:

people called it a Hundred Year Flood (some said Four Hundred Year Flood) meaning a flooding so extreme that it occurs only once in a hundred (or four hundred ) years.

:

 it was a truly strange time. 

 :

flood10

.

.

.

back then, I lived with my partner in the enormous, shabby glamour of his fifth floor family apartment. Much of Prague city center had been drowned, blacked out and evacuated. We, on the periphery of the center, were also beginning to be evacuated. In the end, as it transpired, we were not forced to leave because our apartment building was on a hump in the street, which lofted us above the high water mark.

 :

when I leaned out the window before most of the street was flooded, I saw people moving and meeting in clots and singly in a slow chaotic dance that bore little resemblance to the purposeful hither and thither of normal days  Even at that distance, it was possible to see something had changed.

 :

flood6

.

.

.

later, when we went out to try to find out if we were required to evacuate, we called into one of the cafes higher up where many people gathered, with their dripping umbrellas and raincoats, talking from table to table, sharing news. To understand the strangeness of this, you have to live in Prague and learn how neighbors barely acknowledge one another the way strangers do not speak to you unless you force the issue.  Yet here they were not only talking, but smiling.  There was a curious sense of solidarity in the day, and also a distinct, almost festival air of excitement, that I felt as static electricity on my skin.

 :

flood34

.

.

.

 a decade later, it is raining again.

flood2

.

.

.

now,  we live on the third floor, in an apartment building several streets higher than before, though in the same district. The predictions of flooding are less dire and this time, the city is ready.  It took five years after the last flood, to install a system of barriers along the river, and although the city moved sluggishly enough tin setting them up that the Kampa was once again submerged before they managed to activate the barriers, all have now been set up.  They are not so much designed to hold back the river as to redirect it back to its course, as much as that can be managed. Besides the barriers, everywhere you see banks of hoses connected to pumps, all pointing into the river. There are sandbag barriers around many buildings. All of the Metro stations and many low-lying roads are closed. Tram routes have been torturously and in some cases inefficiently altered. Some routes see trams running empty while on others, every tram is packed like a sardine tin. Police with fluttering tape barriers, man those streets where the river had begun to invade the city. This seems an absurdity for what does the river care for uniforms and police tape?  Each day the police cars sit higher and the tape barrier is moved.

 :

flood36

.

.

.

it rains non stop for days.

 :

flood37

.

.

.

my daughter goes by bus to Croatia. One thousand kilometres and she reports that it rained all the way. One thousand kilometres of rain is a lot of rain, my partner murmurs.  And all the while it rains on Prague.

:

flood23

 

.

.

.

one day, sick of reports and unsteady footage on the internet, I take a walk to the Vltava.  It is wide and brown and smoothly fast in places, churned to caramel in others. Barrels and sticks and oddments of flotsum float by. Along the edges tree tops shudder as the river creeps higher up their trunks and plucks at their foliage with a bullying playfulness. The water looks strangely bare and then I realise it is bereft of boats save for one lumbering two story Botel lashed to the shore on the other side, its gangplanks half submerged. There are a lot of people doing what I am doing, coming to look, taking photos and film clips with camera and phones and ipods.

 :

flood14

.

.

.

again I am struck by the general sense of suppressed excitement and the unspoken hunger for more. As if this flood is a story that is unfolding, and spectators are caught up in a desire to know what is going to happen next. They want the next installment.

 :

along the river bulky, official looking men with number 2 razor bark into two way radios. People line the barriers and bridges, peer and point. ‘Remember 2002,’ they say and then they tell where they were and what they saw.  My partner says later, marveling, that every single person he had passed was discussing the river.

 :

flood5

.

.

.

they are waiting for something to happen, I think. Of course they don’t want it to be anything very bad, but you get the feeling that the current level of flooding is not quite dangerous enough to feed their illicit and unspoken hunger. The tourists whose holidays have been blighted at least want something for their money. A little danger and drama, some good pictures.

 

‘we are very disappointed,’ one couple on their anniversary trip from London are reported as saying.

 :

flood15

.

.

.

the sound of police and ambulance sirens are constant.  They are evacuating the hospital nearest the river. Later, we hear they have begun to evacuate the zoo- two tigers escaped for a short time before sleep darts put an end to their adventure. I try to imagine how it was, to be briefly free in the drowned world.

:

flood16

.

.

.

my partner tells me they have evacuated many animals already and none were harmed but a flamingo that broke a leg. He tells me a complicated story about a flood tower at the zoo through which tranquilized gorillas were passed up to a higher enclosure. The alpha male gorilla is furious and attacks the keepers who try to feed them.

 :

flood30

.

.

.

i can’t help but remember the most tragic moment of the last flood, when an old and grumpy elephant unable to be moved, was fed buns by a weeping zoo director until he had to be shot because otherwise he would have drowned.

 :

people died in that last flood, too.  Not many, though that would be little comfort to the bereaved. People have died this time, too; one an old woman whose house collapsed around her, two whose raft was overturned.  There are pictures circulating on the internet of the waters flowing over the river banks, covering streets, drowning signs and statues with a kind of magnificent, blank, brown disregard.

: flood28

.

.

.

today I go out because I have promised to meet a friend.  It is chilly and damp and dark and rain is falling. I think to cut over the hill through Letna Park so I can see the river for myself. To my surprise, there is police tape forbidding entry to the park. I remember that my partner told me the much lower Stromovka Park which runs to the Zoo, is closed. There are policemen stationed at the entrance with their tape barriers to ensure no one enters.  I remember that last flood, the whole of Stromovka Park was dramatically under water, and afterwards many trees fell or developed rot which required them to be cut down. The park was never the same afterwards.  The flood tamed it. Yet now, standing at the rim of Letna which is too high to be troubled by flood waters, people are forbidden and as I gazed into the dark, still, quiet under the trees, bereft of humans, the air seemed suddenly strangely dense and wild to me.

 :

this is what Little Fur came from, I remember, ten years ago.  That other flood and the disruption of it – a city cracked open to reveal a hidden wildness. The sense of the inexorable potency of nature roused, which foolish humans forget to take into account.  As I turn to seek another way to the part of the city I want to reach, on the other side of the river, I hear someone say in English that it is a disaster. There is distinct excitement threaded through the voice and I think yet again how there is something about disaster that thrills us, tasteless though it might seem.

:

flood24

.

.

.

perhaps it is because, for a time, normality is broken and in the cracks things can happen that could never otherwise have done so.

 :

i remember once, back when I was a journalist, someone telling me that there had been a significant spike in divorces and separations after the Ash Wednesday fires. I had been commenting on the divorce of a couple about whom I had done a feature article some years before.  The woman had been an artist and the man an incredible wood worker.  They had lived in a mudbrick house in the Otways and had seemed blissfully happy and creative. But after their house burned down, they divorced. It was not a matter of money, because there was insurance, but it turns out this is a common statistical aftermath of any disaster. It is not so much that the disaster or even the destruction and financial hardship it produces, causes the estrangement of couples. It is that disaster produces unexpected possibilities. The chance to change paths and try a different life.

 :

for some, it opens a crack through which they can fall and disappear, perhaps never knowing until that moment how they desired to escape their lives. Another statistic in the wake of disaster is a rise in disappearances.

:

flood25

.

.

.

for others disaster provokes change simply because it produces extreme situations that force us to see aspects of ourselves (or of others) that would never have revealed themselves in ordinary circumstances: Fortitude or patience or kindness or compassion or courage or cowardice.

: flood26

.

.

.

of course for some, sometimes for many, disaster can mean an end- to love or wealth or a way of life or a certain life or to life itself.

 :

it strikes me that writing fantasy, in many ways, attempts to do what disaster does. To fracture reality in order to produce extreme situations in which things that would not ordinarily come to light, are revealed.

:

 flood32

11 Responses

    1. Min says:

      If felt the same way when Brisbane flooded (early 2011), as though the drama and disruption was exciting and wanted by everyone as much as it was sad and scary. I think it’s because our lives are so predictable and regimented and we’re all quietly desperate for ANY sort of change to that. It gives people something new to talk about, makes us feel like we’re a part of something (since it effects everybody regardless of where we fit into society), and breaks the monotony. Instead of focusing only on the self and we’re forced to think about and help others and – surprise – doing so, or the opportunity to do so at least, makes us happy.
      Sounds like you guys are high and dry – hope it stops raining for you soon.

      • I totally agree about the quiet desperation we feel being behind that weird thrill we feel in the midst of disaster. I think if it were more serious, or ot was affecting us directly in some serious and specific way, the feelings would be totally different. It is because we are on the periphery that we can feel ourselves to be front row spectators at some strange performance. But I also think it is that sense of solidarity and united-ness that we crave, which disaster seems to provoke, that we are drawn to as well. That longing for the barriers between us to be swept away so that we can interact more directly.

    2. Caroline says:

      I fully agree with your comment, Isobelle, on how writing fantasy is another way of “fracturing reality in order to produce extreme situations in which things that would not ordinarily come to light, are revealed”. For me personally the strength of your oeuvre lies particularly in that remains closely connected with reality as we know it – like in “Alyzon Whitestarr”, “Dreamwalker”, “Greylands” or “The Gathering” to name a few – as an opening of possibilities that could possibly happen to all of us.

      I am following closely the events in Turkey and I am amazed to observe what the announcement to cut down a park and a couple of torn-out trees in the heart of Istanbul has sparked: A civil unrest that has spread throughout Turkey, beyond alliances to political parties or – even more astonishing – football clubs, bringing out the worst (in case of the police) but also the best in people, looking out and caring for each other, but also stray animals who got caught up in the war-like tear gas attacks. Also here reality has been fractured in order to produce extreme situations in which things that would not ordinarily come to light, are revealed.
      And quoting from the powerful opening of your blog ” there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their lifeis bound in shallows and in miseries.”, that is probably what the Turks are feeling right now, there is a tear within the social fabric of the country which may lead to historic changes or not, and they need to be there, to witness it, to take part – and as a friend described it – to feel incredibly alive!

      May you all keep safe and sound, and find a lot of happy and unexpected encounters with the normally rather reserved Czechs as you withstand the flood :)!

      • I am very conscious of what is happening in Istanbul- a friend is there now, and of course you lived there and I always feel that not going when you were there was a real missed opportunity. But I think the reason the Turks have reacted so strongly to the decision to get rid of a park is the same thing many of us feel about the decisions of power brokers which pay no heed at all to us and our desires. Criminal activities, vile behaviors like lying and sleazy deals are rife in politicians and yet we seem unable to oust them. Shady magnates run things and the idea that we elect them and have some say in the way things are run seems more and more an illusion. I think there is a kind of revolution building in our bloodstreams, fueled by outrage at our helplessness, and I think the Turks and the whole occupy movement is only the beginning. I fear that like Gandhi’s passive revolution, that many innocent little people will be casualties and many will have to be prepared to die for what they believe in, before anything changes. As to what the changes might be, I cannot imagine what a world without the few immoral rich and the vast poor, without poachers, bankers and sly,sociopathic magnates and lying self promoting politician- manipulators will look like.

    3. Chris Newton says:

      It’s a fascinating thought: This comment you made, Isobelle: “I cannot imagine what a world without the few immoral rich and the vast poor, without poachers, bankers and sly, sociopathic magnates and lying self promoting politician- manipulators will look like.”

      Do you think it’s actually possible to have such a world?
      I look at the animal kingdom, and in many respects, they are much the same. The ‘higher’ orders prey on the ‘lower’ orders. If they didn’t, they would not survive. We all have our ‘place’.

      Is it possible for everybody to be more-or-less equal, or will that cause the human race to die out? Even in model communities where everyone is supposed to be equal, there is an hierarchical structure……

      • Good questions, Chris. I wonder this myself- I remember how in the Matrix, one character tells Neo that the computers tried a perfect world, but that somehow it didn’t take- humans died. I think we do need stress and fear and something to yearn for, but wouldn’t it be great if the fear and stress came from trying to track a rare and dangerous animal to get a good picture in the wild-or climbing a mountain or trying to paint the perfect rose, or write the perfect book, or studying for an exam to be a better doctor. I think we would still fall in love with people who do not love us and strive to be understood by people who misunderstood us – what I mean is that i think it is in our nature to strive and to seek things to strive against. But I don’t think we need a world in which there is so much injustice and inequity and cruelty, so much greed. I think we could do without them. There would still be floods and earthquakes and heartbreak and untimely deaths and sickness- more than enough to keep us striving.

    4. Chris Newton says:

      Hi Isobelle. You make some good points. If only we could all strive towards something more positive. If only greed would not get in the way. If only, if only….. It would be wonderful!

      Education is a big step to achieving understanding. I think education needn’t just be schooling, but life-experiences too.

      Having lived in may parts of the world, I’ve found that the people who are usually the most sympathetic and kind, are those who understand and love animals. Animals offer us education, and I get the feeling, that if one loves their animals (a pet dog or something), they could also have more sympathy and understanding towards humans. Those people I’ve got on with best, and understood best (despite not always being able to speak their language), are those who love animals (often pet dogs).

    5. Marta says:

      Do you think that’s why your fantasy, Isobelle, which is so full of love and rich relationships and hope, also always has an element of darkness? Malik and his men; Analivia’s horrible brother; Ariel; even Domick’s Mika. You don’t shy away from the wrongness, even the evil, of those characters. You provide not just fantasy to crack our ordinary lives, but dark fantasy; to bring up those same emotions that disaster brings, perhaps?

      All stories have that power, I guess, particularly those that touch on the dark sides of humanity; particularly those that combine good and darkness the way your stories do. And fantasy above all else, because magic gives us limitless possibilities. Allows for that connection, mind to mind and soul to soul, which forges the deepest relationships. Those loves that we’re most likely to take away from a book and quietly long for in our own dreams. And on the flip side, magic also allows for the ultimate corruption, because being able to see a person’s innermost desires gives someone power to break them, and in doing so perhaps destroy the person too. Because you can’t live without your dreams.

      I live in Melbourne (Australia) and a few years ago we had the terrible Black Saturday bushfires. I vividly remember that day – seeing red and grey roll across the sky; smelling the smoke; driving home and turning on the television and learning what was going on; calling a friend of mine who lived in Kinglake and getting nothing but a busy signal. It was so hot. So terribly, terribly hot. I think all of Victoria mourned at that time, like the world mourned after the September 11 bombings all those years back, and like Min said, everyone pulled together, donated time and resources and energy and just focus on something bigger than our usual small selves. And I think dark fiction does the same – makes the reader identify, for a time, with people who have impulses and desires and do things that they themselves would never contemplate–and yet, just maybe, might be capable of under the right set of circumstances. The best writers disturb our self image just enough to let us take a fresh look at the world and, for a time, be kinder to ourselves and the people around us. Maybe because they show us what COULD happen if we aren’t.

    6. Sionainn says:

      Interestingly, I would say that the death of an individual can have the same effect, though definitely not in as wide spread of a scale. Possibly this is because of the percieved destructive nature of death, that it too opens up cracks and therefore possibilites that would not otherwise be considered–that and the fact that these kind of disasters oft include death.

      I say this after noting how people acted when a young girl I attended high school with commited suicide, and even throughout losing people in my own family. There was always a kind of clamouring: everyone wanted to be noticed and known as having lost them, to be acknowledged as having been a part of something that no longer was. At times it would even seem like people would argue as having experienced more hardship because of the death, which was something that always intrigued and confused me. I can only assume that people must gain some sense of belonging through it.

Leave a Reply

Can I use HTML in my comment?

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

close '