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Kingdom submerged

The summer floods put us in our place

OurKingdom, July 2007

Summer 2005, and I’m working as an assistant lock keeper on the river Thames . A parallel world has unfurled before me. I live less than a mile from this river – I’ve walked by it many times, swum in it, kayaked on it, passed endlessly over its bridges. Yet I’ve evidently never really seen it. It is a whole new channel of human life, and the work it does, the people who live on it, live from it, work it and know it are a whole world of their own.

The lock keeper and I flit every other day between the three Oxford locks: Iffley, Osney and Godstow. Here we open and close the gates to let the boats through. We mow the lawns and weed the flower beds. We raise and lower the weirs, check the levels, answer questions from passing Japanese tourists and make and drink a lot of tea.

In my three months on the locks I learn a lot of things. I learn to what type of boat is making its way upstream from half a mile away. I learn to calculate by sight what will fit into the lock and what won’t, how much water to let through and when to stop it. I learn how to deal with bolshie tourists and narrowboats full of estate agents out on a pissed-up stag weekend. I learn precisely how much to raise and lower the weirs depending on the amount of rain that’s been reported upstream. The Thames is a teacher.

The lessons of the last week, however, have been extreme by its usually gentle standards. We live in a kingdom of rivers, but t he Thames is not big, broad or bombastic enough to compete with some of the others. It has no bore like the Severn , no foaming falls like the Tees , no broad, spectacular estuary to match the Forth as it slews into the sea. For sheer beauty there are other rivers that outdo it: the broad, shallow trout streams of the Scottish highlands, the sparkling, excitable torrents of the Lake District , even some of the sleepy, winding reed-swamped channels of East Anglia .

What the Thames does have is a human-scale beauty, and layer upon layer of history and meaning. Much of it converges on Oxford , my hometown, flowing under its low bridges and through the gates of its locks. The Thames is perhaps our most tamed and examined river. It is supposed to be our servant, not our master. Perhaps this is why its current behaviour has taken us so much by surprise.

Like a pet dog that turns or a slave that rebels, the Thames has broken the rules we have imposed upon it, and there is nothing we can do but watch. Exploring the city the other evening I saw pools where streets once were and cycled through them, the water above my ankles. Lines of sandbags marched through Osney, Botley and Grandpont, piled outside the doors of tiny terraces and monster mansions alike. My favourite riverside pub, The Isis, stood shuttered and dark, a waterfall flowing through it. People stood outside the as-yet-untouched Waterman’s Arms near Osney lock, watching the brimming banks with pints in their hands and joking about insurance claims. On the Botley Road , usually a stinking traffic artery between the ring road and the station, you could hear the water and the birdsong and the sound of voices.

Already, in Oxford as elsewhere, we’re flapping around looking for someone to blame. The Environment Agency, the City Council, Hillary Benn, Gordon Brown. Someone must have slipped up for this to happen. What we won’t allow ourselves to think, because it is too worrying, is that there is no-one to blame: that this could not have been stopped, because we were not in control.

This is not a message that humans anywhere like to hear. We are supposed to have conquered Nature like we long ago conquered the Thames . We are homo sapiens and we hold the seasons, the soil and our destiny in the palms of our hairless hands. We are evolution’s pinnacle, reared on dreams of conquest and immortality. We do not lose control to rivers.

The Conservative Party is currently pondering the creation of a ‘national crisis force’ to deal with such emergencies as the floods have created. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has promised to ‘learn the lessons.’ I doubt if he will, because the true lessons are too uncomfortable. The lesson that the once-docile Thames has taught us this week is that Nature, and not humanity, remains in control and that there is, despite all our sandbags and helicopters, not much that we can do about it. The Prime Minister, in search of lessons, might want to try chatting to one of the Thames lock keepers. They’ve known that for years.