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Phase Three (part 3)

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« on: December 05, 2022, 02:25:26 am »

The campaign did not get off to the resounding start that Bocker had hoped. In England, it had the misfortune to be adopted by the Nethermore Press, and was consequently regarded as stunt territory wherein it would be unethical for other journalistic feet to trespass. In America it did not stand out greatly among the other excitements of the week. In both countries there were interests which preferred that it should seem to be no more than a stunt. France and Italy took it more seriously, but their governments’ political weight in world councils was lighter. Russia ignored the content, but explained the purpose; it was yet another move by cosmopolitan-fascist warmongers to extend their influence in the Arctic.

Nevertheless, official indifference was slightly breached, Bocker assured us. A Committee on which the Services were represented had been set up to inquire and make recommendations. A similar Committee in Washington, D.C., also inquired in a leisurely fashion until it was brought up sharply by the State of California.

The average Californian was not greatly worried by a rise of a couple of inches in the tide-level; he had been much more delicately stricken. Something was happening to his climate. The average of his seaboard temperature had gone way down, and he was having cold, wet fogs. He disapproved of that, and a large number of Californians disapproving makes quite a noise. Oregon, and Washington, too, rallied to support their neighbour. Never within the compass of their statistical records had there been so cold and unpleasant a winter.

It was clear to all parties that the increased flow of ice and cold water pouring out of the Bering Sea was being swept eastward by the Kuro Siwo current from Japan, and patent to at least one of the parties that the amenities of the most important State in the Union were suffering gravely. Something must be done.

In England the spur was applied when the April spring-tides overflowed the Embankment wall at Westminster. Assurances that this had happened a number of times before and was devoid of particular significance were swept aside by the triumphant we-told-you-so of the Nethermore Press. A hysterical Bomb-the-Bathies demand sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic, and spread round the world. (Except for the intransigent sixth.)

Foremost, as well as first, in the Bomb-the-Bathies movement, the Nethermore Press inquired, morning and evening: ‘WHAT IS THE BOMB FOR?’

‘Billions have been spent upon this Bomb which appears to have no other destiny but to be held up and shaken threateningly, or, from time to time, to provide pictures for our illustrated papers. Having made it, we were too scared to use it in Korea; now, it seems, we are too scared to use it on the Bathies. The first reluctance was understandable, the present one is unforgivable. The people of the world, having evolved and paid for this weapon, are now forbidden to use it against a menace that has sunk our ships, closed our oceans, snatched men and women from our very shores, and now threatens to drown us. Procrastination and ineptitude has from the beginning marked the attitude of the Authorities in this affair . . .’ and so on, with the earlier bombings of the Deeps apparently forgotten by writers and readers alike.

‘Working up nicely now,’ said Bocker when we saw him next.

‘It seems pretty silly to me,’ Phyllis told him, bluntly. ‘All the same old arguments against the indiscriminate bombing of Deeps still apply.’

‘Oh, not that part,’ Bocker said. ‘They’ll probably drop a few bombs here and there with plenty of publicity and no results. No, I mean the planning. We’re now in the first stage of stupid suggestions like building immense levees of sandbags, of course; but it is getting across that something has got to be done.’

It got across still more strongly after the next spring-tides. There had been strengthening of the sea defences everywhere. In London the riverside walls had been reinforced and topped for their whole length with sandbags. As a precaution, traffic had been diverted from the Embankment, but the crowds turned out to throng it and the bridges, on foot. The police did their best to keep them moving, but they dawdled from one point to another, watching the slow rise of the water, waving to the crews of passing tugs and barges which presently were riding above the road-level. They seemed equally ready to be indignant if the water should break through, or disappointed if there were an anti-climax.

They were not disappointed. The water lapped slowly above the parapet and against the sandbags. Here and there it began to trickle through on to the pavements. Firemen, Civil Defence, and Police watched their sections anxiously, rushing bags to reinforce wherever a trickle enlarged, shoring up weak-looking spots with timber struts. The pace gradually became hotter. The bystanders began to help, dashing from one point to another as new jets started up. Presently there could be little doubt what was going to happen. Some of the watching crowd withdrew, but many of them remained, in a wavering fascination. When the breakthrough came, it occurred in a dozen places on the north bank almost simultaneously. Among the spurting jets a bag or two would begin to shift, then, suddenly, came a collapse, and a gap several yards wide through which the water poured as if over a weir.

From where we stood on top of an EBC van parked on Vauxhall Bridge we were able to see three separate rivers of muddy water pouring into the streets of Westminster, filling basements and cellars as they went, and presently merging into one flood. Our commentator handed over to another, perched on a Pimlico roof. For a minute or two we switched over to the BBC to find out how their crew on Westminster Bridge was faring. We got on to them just in time to hear Bob Humbleby describing the flooded Victoria Embankment with the water now rising against New Scotland Yard’s own second line of defences. The television boys didn’t seem to be doing too well; there must have been a lot of bets lost on where the breaks-through would occur, but they were putting up a struggle with the help of telephoto lenses and portable cameras.

From that point on, the thing got thick and fast. On the south bank water was breaking into the streets of Lambeth, Southwark, and Bermondsey in a number of places. Up river it was seriously flooding Chiswick; down river Limehouse was getting it badly, and more places kept on reporting breaks until we lost track of them. There was little to be done but stand by for the tide to drop, and then rush the repairs against its next rise.

---

The House outquestioned any quiz. The replies were more assured than assuring.

The relevant Ministries and Departments were actively taking all the steps necessary, claims should be submitted through Local Councils, priorities of men and material had already been arranged. Yes, warnings had been given, but unforeseen factors had intruded upon the hydrographers’ original calculations. An Order in Council would be made for the requisition of all earth-moving machinery. The public could have full confidence that there would be no repetition of the calamity; the measures already put in hand would insure against any further extension. Little could be done beyond rescue-work in the Eastern Counties at present, that would of course continue, but the most urgent matter at the moment was to ensure that the water could make no further inroads at the next high-tides.

The requisition of materials, machines, and manpower was one thing; their apportionment, with every seaboard community and low-lying area clamouring for them simultaneously, quite another. Clerks in half a dozen Ministries grew pale and heavy-eyed in a welter of demands, allocations, adjustments, redirections, misdirections, subornments, and downright thefts. But somehow, and in some places, things began to get done. Already, there was great bitterness between those who were chosen, and those who looked like being thrown to the wolves.

Phyllis went down one afternoon to look at progress of work on the riverside. Amid great activity on both banks a superstructure of concrete blocks was arising on the existing walls. The sidewalk supervisors were out in their thousands to watch. Among them she chanced upon Bocker. Together they ascended to Waterloo Bridge, and watched the termite-like activity with a celestial eye for a while.

‘Alph, the sacred river—and more than twice fives miles of walls and towers,’ Phyllis observed.

‘And there are going to be some deep but not very romantic chasms on either side, too,’ said Bocker. ‘I wonder how high they’ll go before the futility comes home to them.’

‘It’s difficult to believe that anything on such a scale as this can be really futile, but I suppose you are right,’ said Phyllis.

Bocker waved a hand at it.

‘The basis of all this is an assurance by that old fool Stackley, who is a geographer who knows damn-all about oceans, that the overall rise cannot be more than ten or twelve feet at the most. Heaven knows what he bases it on: a desire to create full employment, by the look of it. Some departments have accepted that as the authentic dope. They seem to think they can muddle through this thing as they muddle through their wars. Others, thank God, have a bit more sense. However, this isn’t being interfered with because it is felt that some kind of show is necessary for morale.’

‘I’ve had to speak to you about this undergraduate attitude before, A. B.,’ said Phyllis. ‘What is being done that’s useful?’

‘Oh, they’re working out plans,’ Bocker said, with deliberate vagueness.

They continued to regard the medley of men and machinery down below for a time.

‘Well,’ Bocker remarked, at length, ‘there must be at least one figure among the shades who is getting a hell of a good laugh out of this.’

‘Nice to think there’s even one,’ Phyllis said. ‘Who?’

‘King Canute,’ said Bocker.

We were having so much news of our own at that time that the effects in America found little room in newspapers already straitened by a paper shortage. Newscasts, however, told that they were having their own troubles over there. California’s climate was no longer Problem Number One. In addition to the difficulties that were facing ports and seaboard cities all over the world, there was bad coastline trouble in the south of the United States. It ran almost all the way around the Gulf from Key West to the Mexican border. In Florida, owners of real estate began to suffer once again as the Everglades and the swamps spilt across more and more country. Across in Texas a large tract of land north of Brownsville was gradually disappearing beneath the water. Still worse hit were Louisiana, and the Delta. The enterprise of Tin Pan Alley considered it an appropriate time to revive the plea: ‘River, Stay ’Way from My Door,’ but the river did not—nor, over on the Atlantic coast, did other rivers, in Georgia and the Carolinas.

But it is idle to particularize. All over the world the threat was the same. The chief difference was that in the more developed countries all available earth-shifting machinery worked day and night, while in the more backward it was sweating thousands of men and women who toiled to raise great levees and walls.

But for both the task was too great. The more the level rose, the further the defences had to be extended to prevent outflanking. When the rivers were backed up by the incoming tides there was nowhere for the water to go but over the surrounding countryside. All the time, too, the problems of preventing flooding from the rear by water backed up in sewers and conduits became more difficult to handle. Even before the first serious inundation which followed the breaking of the Embankment wall near Blackfriars, in October, the man in the street had suspected that the battle could not be won, and the exodus of those with wisdom and the means had already started. Many of them, moreover, were finding themselves forestalled by refugees from the eastern counties and the more vulnerable coastal towns elsewhere.

Some little time before the Blackfriars breakthrough a confidential note had circulated among selected staff, and contracted personnel such as ourselves, at EBC. It had been decided as a matter of policy in the interests of public morale, we learnt, that, should certain emergency measures become necessary, etc., etc., and so on, for two foolscap pages, with most of the information between the lines. It would have been a lot simpler to say: ‘Look. The gen is that this thing’s going to get serious. The BBC has orders to stay put, so for prestige reasons we’ll have to do the same. We want volunteers to man a station here, and if you care to be one of them, we’ll be glad to have you. Suitable arrangements will be made. There’ll be a bonus, and you can trust us to look after you if anything does happen. How about it?’

Phyllis and I talked it over. If we had had any family, we decided, the necessity would have been to do the best we could by them—in so far as anyone could possibly know what might turn out to be best. As we had not, we could please ourselves. Phyllis summed up for staying on the job.

‘Apart from conscience and loyalty and all the proper things,’ she said. ‘Goodness knows what is going to happen in other places if it does get really bad. Somehow, running away seldom seems to work out well unless you have a pretty good idea of what you’re running to. My vote is for sticking, and seeing what happens.’

So we sent our names in, and were pleased to find that Freddy Whittier and his wife had done the same.

After that, some clever departmentalism made it seem as if nothing were happening for a while. Several weeks passed before we got wind of the fact that EBC had leased the top two floors of a large department-store near Marble Arch, and were working all-out to have them converted into as near a self-supporting station as was possible.

‘I should have thought,’ said Phyllis, when we acquired this information, ‘that somewhere higher, like Hampstead or Highgate, would have been better.’

‘Neither of them is quite London,’ I pointed out. ‘Besides, EBC probably gets it for a nominal rent for announcing each time: “This is the EBC calling the world from Selvedge’s.” Goodwill advertising during the interlude of emergency.’

‘Just as if the water would just go away one day,’ she said.

‘Even if they don’t think so, they lose nothing by letting EBC have it,’ I pointed out.

By that time we were becoming highly level-conscious, and I looked the place up on the map. The seventy-five foot contour line ran down the street on the building’s western side.

‘How does that compare with the arch-rival?’ wondered Phyllis, running her finger across the map.

Broadcasting House appeared to be very slightly better off. About eighty-five feet above mean sea-level, we judged.

‘H’m,’ she said. ‘Well, if there is any calculation behind our being on the top floors, they’ll be having to do a lot of moving upstairs, too. Gosh,’ she added, glancing over to the left of the map. ‘Look at their television-studios! Right down on the twenty-five foot level. There’ll be a lot of helter-skelter back to Ally-Pally, I should think.’

In the weeks just before the breakthrough London seemed to be living a double life. Organizations and institutions were making their preparations with as little ostentation as possible. Officials spoke in public with an affected casualness of the need to make plans ‘just in case’, and then went back to their offices to work feverishly on the arrangements. Announcements continued to be reassuring in tone. The men employed on the jobs were for the most part cynical about their work, glad of the overtime pay, and curiously disbelieving. They seemed to regard it as a stunt which was working nicely to their benefit; imagination apparently refused to credit the threat with any reality outside working hours. Even after the breakthrough, alarm was oddly localized with those who had suffered. The wall was hurriedly repaired, and the exodus was still not much more than a trickle of people. Real trouble came with the next spring-tides.

There was plenty of warning this time in the parts likely to be most affected. The people took it stubbornly and phlegmatically. They had already had experience to learn by. The main response was to move possessions to upper storeys, and grumble loudly at the inefficiency of authorities who were incapable of saving them the trouble involved. Notices were posted giving the times of high-water for three days, but the suggested precautions were couched with such a fear of promoting panic that they were little heeded.

The first day passed safely. On the evening of the highest water a large part of London settled down to wait for midnight and the crisis to pass, in a sullenly bad-tempered mood. The buses were all off the streets, and the Underground had ceased to run at eight in the evening. But plenty of people stayed out, and walked down to the river to see what there was to be seen from the bridges. They had their show. The smooth, oil surface of the river crawled slowly up the piers of the bridges and against the retaining walls. The muddy water flowed upstream with scarcely a sound, and the crowds, too, were almost silent, looking down on it apprehensively. There was no fear of it topping the walls; the estimated rise was twenty-three feet, four inches, which would leave a safety margin of four feet to the top of the new parapet. It was pressure that was the source of anxiety.

From the north end of Waterloo Bridge where we were stationed this time, one was able to look along the top of the wall, with the water running high on one side of it, and, to the other, the roadway of the Embankment, with the street lamps still burning there, but not a vehicle or a human figure to be seen upon it. Away to the west the hands on the Parliament clock-tower crawled round the illuminated dial. The water rose as the big hand moved with insufferable sloth up to eleven o’clock. Over the quiet crowds the note of Big Ben striking the hour came clearly downwind.

The sound caused people to murmur to one another; then they fell silent again. The hand began to crawl down, ten past, a quarter, twenty, twenty-five, then, just before the half-hour, there was a rumble somewhere upstream; a composite, crowd-voice sound came to us on the wind. The people about us craned their necks, and murmured again. A moment later we saw the water coming. It poured along the Embankment towards us in a wide, muddy flood, sweeping rubbish and bushes with it, rushing past beneath us. A groan went up from the crowd. Suddenly there was a loud crack and a rumble of falling masonry behind us as a section of the wall, close by where the Discovery had formerly been moored, collapsed. The water poured through the gap, wrenching away concrete blocks so that the wall crumbled before our eyes and the water poured in a great muddy cascade on to the roadway. . . .

---

Before the next tide came the Government had removed the velvet glove. Following the announcement of a State of Emergency came a Standstill Order, and the proclamation of an orderly scheme of evacuation. There is no need for me to write here of the delays and muddles in which the scheme broke down. It is difficult to believe that it can have been taken seriously even by those who launched it. An unconvincing air seemed to hang over the whole affair from the beginning. The task was impossible. Something, perhaps, might have been done had only a single city been concerned, but with more than two-thirds of the country’s population anxious to move on to higher ground, only the crudest methods had any success in checking the pressure, and then not for long.

But, though it was bad here, it was still worse elsewhere. The Dutch had withdrawn in time from the danger areas, realizing that they had lost their centuries-long battle with the sea. The Rhine and the Mass had backed up in flood over square miles of country. A whole population was trekking southward into Belgium or south-east into Germany. The North German Plain itself was little better off. The Ems and the Weser had widened out, too, driving people southward from their towns and farms in an increasing horde. In Denmark every kind of boat was in use ferrying families to Sweden and the higher ground there.

For a little time we managed to follow in a general way what was happening, but when the inhabitants of the Ardennes and Westphalia turned in dismay to save themselves by fighting off the hungry, desperate invaders from the north, hard news disappeared in a morass of rumour and chaos. All over the world the same kind of thing must have been going on, differing only in its scale. At home, the flooding of the Eastern Counties had already driven people back on the Midlands. Loss of life was small, for there had been plenty of warning. Real trouble started on the Chiltern Hills where those already in possession organized themselves to prevent their being swamped by the two converging streams of refugees from the east and from London.

Within London, too, the same pattern was taking shape on a smaller scale. The dwellers in the Lea Valley, Westminster, Chelsea, Hammersmith, left their homes for the most part belatedly and reluctantly, but as the water continued to rise and forced them to move the obvious direction to take was towards the heights of Hampstead and Highgate, and as they approached those parts they began to encounter barricades in the streets, and, presently, weapons. Where they were stopped they looted, and searched for weapons of their own. When they had found them they sniped from upper windows and rooftops until they drove the defenders off their barricades and could rush them.

To the south, similar things were happening at Sydenham and Tooting Bec. Districts which were not yet flooded began to catch the panic. Although at high tide the water barely reached the fifteen foot contour as yet, the orderly mood which the Government had striven to maintain was broken. It was largely succeeded by the conviction that position was going to be nine points of survival, and the wise thing to do was to make sure of that position as soon as possible. The dwellers on the high ground took the same view, reinforced by determination to defend themselves and their property.

Over the untouched parts of Central London a mood of Sunday-like indecision hung for several days. Many people, not knowing what else to do, still tried to carry on as nearly as usual. The police continued to patrol. Though the Underground was flooded plenty of people continued to turn up at their places of work, and some kinds of work did continue, seemingly through habit or momentum, then gradually lawlessness seeped inwards from the suburbs and the sense of breakdown became inescapable. Failure of the emergency electric supply one afternoon, followed by a night of darkness, gave a kind of coup de grâce to order. The looting of shops, particularly foodshops, began, and spread on a scale which defeated both the police and the military.

We decided it was time to leave the flat and take up our residence in the new EBC fortress.

From what the short-waves were telling us there was little to distinguish the course of events in the low-lying cities anywhere—except that in some the law died more quickly. It is outside my scope to dwell on the details; I have no doubt that they will be described later in innumerable official histories.

EBC’s part during those days consisted largely in duplicating the BBC in the reading out of Government instructions hopefully intended to restore a degree of order: a monotonous business of telling those whose homes were not immediately threatened to stay where they were, and directing the flooded-out to certain higher areas and away from others that were said to be already overcrowded. We may have been heard, but we could see no visible evidence that we were heeded. In the north there may have been some effect, but in the south the hugely disproportionate concentration of London, and the flooding of so many rails and roads, ruined all attempts at orderly dispersal. The numbers of people in motion spread alarm among those who could have waited. The feeling that unless one reached a refuge ahead of the main crowd there might be no place at all to go was catching—as also was the feeling that anyone trying to do so by car was in possession of an unfair advantage. It quickly became safer to walk wherever one was going—though not outstandingly safe at that. It was best to go out as little as possible.

The existence of numerous hotels, and a reassuring elevation of some seven hundred feet above normal sea-level were undoubtedly factors which influenced Parliament in choosing the town of Harrogate, in Yorkshire, as its seat. The speed with which it assembled there was very likely due to the same force as was motivating many private persons—the fear that someone else might get in first. To an outsider it seemed that a bare few hours after Westminster was flooded, the ancient institution was performing with all its usual fluency in its new home. Questions were being asked regarding the Bomb-the-Bathies policy in the Arctic, and whether it was not an observed fact that the extensive use of hydrogen and other fissile-material bombs in that region was hastening the disintegration of the ice-fields without producing any patently deterrent effects on the originators of the trouble? Were we not, in fact, working there to our own disadvantage?

The First Lord thought this was probably so. The House had taken the decision to bomb, against expert advice.

In answer to a further question the Foreign Secretary stated that a cessation of bombing now by our forces would make little difference since his information was that the Russians were delivering a greater weight of bombs in their sector than we were in ours—or, rather, than our American Allies were, with ourselves. Asked the reason for this sudden Kremlin right-about, he replied:

‘From sources which it would be unwise to disclose we understand that the Russians are showing a greater appreciation of the situation than they have hitherto. It appears that floods in Karelia and the marshes south of the White Sea are extensive, and growing worse rapidly. Further to the east lies an inlet of the Arctic Sea called the Gulf of Ob. To the south of it stretches an immense area of marshland now in the process of inundation. If the rise in the water-level continues it is likely that we shall see the formation in Central Russia of a great inland sea, possibly larger than Hudson Bay—a feature doubtless more familiar to members of this House than is the Gulf of Ob.’

We began to hear a lot of Harrogate and district, and it became obvious that a great deal of preparation had been done in the area. For one thing, our own centre of EBC administration was established there in a resuscitated military camp, though, according to our informants at such a distance from the town that the only leisure occupation was to spy by telescope upon the arch-rival concern situated similarly, but on the other side of a valley.

As for ourselves, we began to shake down into a routine. Our living-quarters were on the top floor. Offices, studios, technical equipment, generators, stores, etc., on the floor beneath. A great reserve of diesel-oil and petrol filled large tanks in the basement, whence it was pumped as necessary. Our aerial systems were on roofs two blocks away, reached by bridges slung high over the intervening streets. Our own roof was largely cleared to provide a helicopter landing, and to act as a rainwater catchment. As we gradually developed a technique for living there we decided it was pretty well found.

Even so, my recollection is that nearly all spare time in the first few days was spent by everyone in transferring the contents of the provision department to our own quarters before it should disappear elsewhere.

There seems to have been a basic misconception of the role we should play. As I understand it, the idea was that we were to preserve, as far as possible, the impression of business as usual, and then, as things grew more difficult, the centre of EBC would follow the administration by gradual stages to Yorkshire. This appears to have been founded upon the assumption that London was so cellularly constructed that as the water flowed into each cell it would be abandoned while the rest carried on much as usual. As far as we were concerned bands, speakers, and artists would all roll up to do their stuff in the ordinary way until the water lapped our doorsteps—if it should ever reach as far—by which time they would presumably have changed to the habit of rolling up to the Yorkshire station instead. The only provision on the programme side that anyone had made for things not happening in this naďve fashion was the transfer of our recorded library before it became actually necessary to save it. A dwindling, rather than a breakdown, was envisaged. Curiously, quite a number of conscientious broadcasters did somehow manage to put in their appearances for a few days. After that, however, we were thrown back almost entirely upon ourselves and the recordings. And, presently, we began to live in a state of siege.

******

I don’t propose to deal in detail with the year that followed. It was a drawn-out story of decay. A long, cold winter during which the water lapped into the streets faster than we had expected. A time when armed bands were roving in search of untouched food-stores, when, at any hour of the day or night, one was liable to hear a rattle of shots as two gangs met. We ourselves had little trouble; it was as if, after a few attempts to raid us, word had gone round that we were ready to defend, and with so many other stores raidable at little or no risk we might as well be left until later.

When the warmer weather came there were noticeably fewer people to be seen. Most of them, rather than face another winter in a city by now largely plundered of food and beginning to suffer epidemics from lack of fresh water and drainage, were filtering out into the country, and the shooting that we heard was usually distant.

Our own numbers had been depleted, too. Out of the original sixty-five we were now reduced to twenty-five, the rest having gone off in parties by helicopter as the national focus became more settled in Yorkshire. From having been a centre we had declined to the state of an outpost maintained for prestige.

Phyllis and I discussed whether we would apply to go, too, but from the description of conditions that we prised out of the helicopter pilot and his crew the EBC Headquarters sounded congested and unattractive, so we decided to stay for a while longer, at any rate. We were by no means uncomfortable where we were, and the fewer of us that were left in our London eyrie, the more space and supplies each of us had.

In late spring we learnt that a decree had merged us with the arch-rival, putting all radio communication under direct Government control. It was the Broadcasting House lot that were moved out by a swift airlift since their premises were vulnerable while ours were already in a prepared state, and the one or two BBC men who stayed came over to join us.

News reached us mainly by two channels: the private link with EBC, which was usually moderately honest, though discreet; and broadcasts which, no matter where they came from, were puffed with patently dishonest optimism. We became very tired and cynical about them, as, I imagine, did everyone else, but they still kept on. Every country, it seemed, was meeting and rising above the disaster with a resolution which did honour to the traditions of its people.

By midsummer, and a cold midsummer it was, the town had become very quiet. The gangs had gone; only the obstinate individuals remained. They were, without doubt, quite numerous, but in twenty thousand streets they seemed sparse, and they were not yet desperate. It was possible to go about in relative safety again, though wise to carry a gun.

The water had risen further in the time than any of the estimates had supposed. The highest tides now reached the fifty-foot level. The flood-line was north of Hammersmith and included most of Kensington. It lay along the south side of Hyde Park, then to the south of Piccadilly, across Trafalgar Square, along the Strand and Fleet Street, and then ran north-east up the west side of the Lea Valley; of the City, only the high ground about St Paul’s was still untouched. In the south it had pushed across Barnes, Battersea, Southwark, most of Deptford, and the lower part of Greenwich.

One day we walked down to Trafalgar Square. The tide was in, and the water reached nearly to the top of the wall on the northern side, below the National Gallery. We leant on the balustrade, looking at the water washing around Landseer’s lions, wondering what Nelson would think of the view his statue was getting now.

Close to our feet, the edge of the flood was fringed with scum and a fascinatingly varied collection of flotsam. Further away, fountains, lamp-posts, traffic-lights, and statues thrust up here and there. On the far side, and down as much as we could see of Whitehall, the surface was as smooth as a canal. A few trees still stood, and in them sparrows chattered. Starlings had not yet deserted St Martin’s church, but the pigeons were all gone, and on many of their customary perches gulls stood, instead. We surveyed the scene and listened to the slip-slop of the water in the silence for some minutes. Then I asked:

‘Didn’t somebody or other once say: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper?” ’

Phyllis looked shocked. ‘“Somebody or other!”’ she exclaimed. ‘That was Mr. Eliot!’

‘Well, it certainly looks as if he had the idea that time,’ I said.

‘It’s the job of poets to have the idea,’ she told me.

‘H’m. It might also be that it is the job of poets to have enough ideas to provide a quotation for any given set of circumstances, but never mind. On this occasion let us honour Mr Eliot,’ I said.

Presently Phyllis remarked: ‘I thought I was through a phase now, Mike. For such a long time it kept on seeming that something could be done to save the world we’re used to—if we could only find out what. But soon I think I’ll be able to feel: “Well, that’s gone. How can we make the best of what’s left?”—all the same, I wouldn’t say that coming to places like this does me any good.’

‘There aren’t places like this. This is—was—one of the uniques. That’s the trouble. And it’s a bit more than dead, but not yet ready for a museum. Soon, perhaps, we may be able to feel, “Lo! All our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre”—soon, but not quite yet.’

‘You seem to be on unusually happy terms with other people’s Muses to-day. Whose was that?’ Phyllis inquired.

‘Well,’ I admitted, ‘I’m not sure whether you would class her as a muse at all—more, perhaps, of a bent. Mr. Kipling’s.’

‘Oh, poor Mr. Kipling. Of course he had a Muse, and she probably played a jolly good game of hockey, too.’

‘Cat,’ I remarked. ‘However, let us also honour Mr. Kipling.’

There was a pause. It lengthened.

‘Mike,’ she said, suddenly, ‘let’s go away from here—now.’

I nodded. ‘It might be better. We’ll have to get a little tougher yet, darling, I’m afraid.’

She took my arm, and we started to walk westward. Half-way to the corner of the Square we paused at the sound of a motor. It seemed, improbably, to come from the south side. We waited while it drew closer. Presently, out from the Admiralty Arch swept a speedboat. It turned in a sharp arc and sped away down Whitehall, leaving the ripples of its wake slopping through the windows of august Governmental offices.

‘Very pretty,’ I said. ‘There can’t be many of us who have accomplished that in one of our waking moments.’

Phyllis gazed along the widening ripples, and abruptly became practical again.

‘I think we’d better see if we can’t find one of those,’ she said. ‘It might come in useful later on.’

******

[The rate of rise]

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