East Anglia 1953 - New Orleans 2005

I know I am dying….Please bury me here, by the path to this chapel. Then, if travellers from my dear country pass this way, their shadows will fall on my grave, and plant a yew tree in memory of me.

The Ferryman recount’s the words of the dying boy abandoned by the river in Britten’s church parable Curlew River. The work was premiered in 1964 in Orford Church, Suffolk, on the East Anglian coast.

Eleven years earlier, on the night of 31st January 1953, Suffolk and the whole of East Anglia had suffered one of the worst floods in living memory, and one of the biggest environmental disasters ever to have occurred in the UK.

During the evening, freak winds and a rising tide pushed the sea to dangerous levels. Inadequate flood defences were breached by huge waves, and coastal towns along the English east coast from Lincolnshire, through Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex to Kent were devastated as sea water rushed into the streets. There were 1200 breaches of sea defences along 1000 miles of coastline. 24,000 homes were flooded, and 307 people were drowned. 160,000 acres of farmland were flooded, and 46,000 livestock were lost.

The inquiry after the disaster concluded that the floods in 1953 were caused by a 'storm surge.' This was a freak of nature, and statistically should only happen once every 250 years. A web site about the tragedy says the following: "Storm surges are a problem associated with hurricanes. Many people consider the strong winds to be the main feature of such a storm, but the associated rise in sea level and heavy rainfall are responsible for most of the deaths associated with hurricanes."

The findings of the analysis is available on the Environment Agency web site, where there is also information on managing flood risk. To avoid a repetition millions of pounds have since been spent on protective measures. Sea defences have been re-engineered to the extent that the sea would need to rise six feet above the 1953 levels to flood the same areas. Massive artificial reefs of imported stone have been built to diffuse the force of waves coming off the North Sea. (There is no natural rock in East Anglia, which is the reason why it is so low lying).

One of the main findings of the inquiry was that there was a lack of communication between the UK Meteorological Office and National River Authority, and this resulted in inadequate warnings. Gales were predicted, but the deepening of the low pressure and the severity of the strengthening winds was not forecast. Today all information on storms and floods is co-ordinated by a single body, the Meteorological Office. An advance warning system is in place to predict high tides on the East Coast. The Environment Agency provides three level of flood warnings yellow when flooding is possible, amber when flooding is likely, and red means serious flooding probable. These flood warnings are updated on their web site every 15 minutes. I live in East Anglia, and this warning system is rigorously enforced, and has a high profile in the media.

But the fact remains that despite massive expenditure and Herculean efforts it is financially, and practically, impossible to protect every mile of the East Anglian coast adequately. Less serious breaches of the sea defences occurred in 1978, 1996, and 2000. Because of the rise in sea levels caused by global warming alternative strategies are now under debate. One of these is controlled retreat. This means allowing the sea to flood some low lying areas naturally, rather than trying to protect them artificially.

Our tenure on earth is finite. East Anglia 1953 and New Orleans 2005 remind us that the force of nature is infinite. At the end of Curlew River the cast join the boy’s mother praying at his graveside.

Go your way in peace, mother.
The dead shall rise again,
And in that blessed day,
We shall meet in heav’n

Now take an overgrown path to Easter in Aldeburgh
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Garth Trinkl said…
Very interesting post, pliable. Thank you. I had never made a connection between an actual storm surge and Britten's church opera from 1964, even though at one point I had studied the parable fairly well (and I own the score). Your post also occurred at an interesting time, in that just yesterday there was a New York Times story about flood control in Europe that focused on the costs of building the expensive technologically-advanced protective hydraulic infrastructure. While that story opened with a description of Holland's 1953 catastrophe, the picture provided with the article was of the London Thames River protective hydraulic sea wall. Later this morning, I'll recheck the story and see if it mentions the English storm surge of 1953.
And thanks again for the beautiful and poignant libretto extracts from the Britten church parable.
Pliable said…
The power of the infinite force of nature here in East Anglia is shown by this news story today
Anonymous said…
A very relevant and enlightening post.

The shame now is that the city of New Orleans had an evacuation plan that called for use of school buses to get people out of the city before a major hurricane strike. Instead, the buses sat in the yards (saw footage of them, hundreds upon hundreds of buses) and now they are underwater and useless.

Somehow, we just don’t get it that nature can be really nasty even if we’ve never known it to be so before
Garth Trinkl said…
I looked briefly, late last night, at my Faber score to Benjamin Britten and William Plomer's church parable "Curlew River".
The beautifully engraved bilingual score (English-German) includes a preface by Imogen Holst and extensive original production notes by Colin Graham. These production notes include many diagrams and beautiful black and white drawings showing the bodily positions of the figures in the drama -- especially the Madwoman. The work was dedicated to Michael Tippett, "In friendship and admiration." In my opinion, the score is an absolutely outstanding world cultural artifact -- one which was apparently initially inspired by a 1953 English tragedy of nature and hundreds of untimely deaths.

The libretto was based by Britten and Plomer on a renowned 15th century Japanese No play "Sumidagawa" (The Madwoman at Sumida River), by the No dramatist
Motomasa. Motomasa was the great Japanese No dramatist Zeami's eldest son. (Motomasa was not, however, Zeami's heir, having predeceased Zeami -- as did another son.) Zeami (1363-1443) was himself the greatest playwright and theorist of the Japanese No theater. (Zeami was exiled, by the Shogunate, to Sado Island for eight of the last ten years of his life, and Zeami and Motomasa were both banned from the Shogunate's Palace for the last 14 years of Zeami's life.)

Britten and Peter Pears saw the No drama on their 1956 trip to Japan, three years after the tragic flooding in East Anglia and about eight years before the world premiere of the church parable.
I first became aware of the church parable upon reading the last chapter of Donald Mitchell's "The Language of Modern Music", purchased in a Detroit booksore while driving across country in 1970.

J. Thomas Rimer's "On the Art of Nø Drama: The Major Treatises of Zeami" is highly recommended.
Pliable said…
Garth, it is interesting that the score for Curlew River was one of the first published by the then recently formed music division of Faber.

The path of scores, and musical instruments, as aesthetically attractive artefacts in their own right is one I plan to explore in a future post.

I am sure you know about the Library of Congress Vatican Exhibit as I think it just up the road from you.

But for those that don't feast your eyes on this score and the others there. But you do need Broadband!

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