In May 2012 the good folk of Staines, down the road from where I used to live, upgraded the name of their town to Staines-upon-Thames. They were trying to boost the local economy by promoting its riverside location, albeit with the unfortunate side-effect of making it sound like a layer of scum. Two winters later, it turns out they simply got the words in the wrong order: it should have been Thames-upon-Staines. As for the local economy, sadly, the river’s been not so much a shot in the arm as a punch in the guts.
I get stressed and shouty when I can’t find my keys or the broadband connection goes wonky, so I shudder to imagine what sort of meltdown would ensue if an endless tide of filthy water ever came frothing through my living room. When I walked the Thames Path a couple of years ago, in the days before scuba gear was required, I did feel twinges of envy at some of the fantouche properties strung out along the riverbank. Yes, householders, I was that furry lardball in shorts flicking surreptitious V-signs at your dream home. But don’t worry: BBC News 24’s relentless visual onslaught has touched my heart, and now I weep for you along with everyone else. (I know that probably isn’t helping much.)
If the Jet Stream hadn’t shimmied southwards as smoothly as John Travolta in his heyday, this fusillade of gales and tempests would be battering the west of Scotland, and the BBC would be struggling to fit the story in between shots of Andrew Mitchell removing his cycle clips and ageing celebrities arriving at court for their acquittal. The narrative would be far simpler too, since clearly the whole thing would be Alex Salmond’s fault.
In England, where media bias is more evenly distributed, the question of who gets the blame is more complex. But now that the devastation has spread from rural areas to the homes of people who actually count for something, it’s becoming hugely important. We know this because every politician who pops up on the screen is now swearing blind it doesn’t matter a jot.
David Cameron, discomfited to find Kent and Somerset locals haranguing him rather than strewing rose petals in his watery path, swiftly concluded that “lessons had to be learned”. In his case the lesson proved to be “I need a human shield”, which led to a fresh outbreak of Owen Paterson, a comedy legend in the shadowy world of ready meals, but not exactly a dab hand at retrospectively dredging rivers. Mr P gave everyone involved six weeks to sort it all out, or he’d come down on them like a ton of bricks, just as he’d done with the badgers. It was empty posturing, naturally, but enough to leave the scapegoat vacancy tantalisingly unfilled.
The situation clearly demanded an amiable but undynamic peer with Labour connections, nominal responsibility for the crisis and his hands tied behind his back. Lord Chris Smith, in the three hours he was allowed in Somerset before being yanked to safety by a giant shepherd’s crook, could hardly have had a worse reception if he’d set about a wasp’s nest with a golf club. When he said flood prevention meant difficult decisions and he was proud of his Environment Agency staff, it was undoubtedly true, but it was also as welcome as a doctor telling you, “The NHS has some smashing drugs, but you’re not getting any because, with your lifestyle and genetics, you’re completely buggered.”
Ladbroke’s immediately stopped taking bets on the identity of the scapegoat. The local Tory MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger, a man of royal blood currently 309th in line to the throne, shook off the shackles of in-breeding to deliver the lacerating critique, “He’s a git… he’s a coward… I’d like to stick his head down the loo and flush.” Could Disraeli have put it more wittily?
There was little comfort for Lord Smith at Westminster, where Owen Paterson was undergoing an eye operation and had temporarily been replaced by Eric Pickles, who is still waiting for his people skills operation. On the Andrew Marr Show Eric weighed in, horrific as that may sound, by blaming the Government’s failure to carry out repeatedly requested dredging in Somerset on bad advice from the Environment Agency, bleating that “we thought we were talking to experts”.
As Messrs Osborne, Balls and Alexander may shortly discover in connection with the Scottish referendum, you don’t back people into a corner unless you’ve taken the standard Tory precautions of breaking their arms and legs. The Environment Agency soon had a snarky rebuttal doing the rounds, pointing out that successive governments had slashed their overall funding and the current lot’s arbitrary spending limits prevented them from recommending any course of action that had the remotest chance of achieving anything.
The spotlight was shifting and the outermost reaches of Eric’s ample girth began to appear in its glare. Cartoonists sharpened their pencils and depicted his buttocks as the ultimate sandbag. But, as everyone knows, weebles wobble but they don’t fall down. Eric went straight to the despatch box and poured out undying admiration for the EA’s works, in words that definitely didn’t contradict his previous statements, though they happened to have the same pronunciation as ones that did.
Meanwhile, the Thames Valley was now underwater and civilisation under threat. Instead of a couple of squaddies with a bucket awaiting orders that would never come, we had whole battalions of beefy troops and even a couple of Royal princes manning the pumps to divert the flood from the playing fields of Eton. David Cameron promised “money is no object”, at which the Chancellor’s eyes grew even more coal-black, his complexion slightly greener and his vision of Dave’s ultimate death at his hands more painful.
Into the breach now stepped Philip Hammond, the man who sneers at an independent Scotland’s ability to defend itself while allowing Russian ships to roam unchecked in Scottish waters. He’s anxious for his troops to relieve the crisis speedily, so that he can get on with giving them their P45s. Moreover, he’s the MP for Runnymede, a place coincidentally just downstream of Datchet, which got lots of help with manpower and sandbags, and across the river from Wraysbury, which didn’t.
Philip therefore didn’t look entirely comfortable on Newsnight, explaining to a live audience in the George Inn at Wraysbury why they, unlike their neighbours on the opposite bank, had been left to fend for themselves. Er, it was down to the differing “topography” of the two areas, announced Philip queasily, playing the duffest “Get Out Of Jail Free” card you could possibly imagine. Nothing like a nearby Cabinet Minister’s footprint to change the landscape in subtle but important ways.
In truth, it’s difficult to envisage a level of preparation adequate for weather conditions last seen when Mozart was doing his pre-pubescent tour of Europe. But the current crisis is a genuine once-in-a-lifetime exception - isn’t it? - and, however prolonged it may be, the inundation will at some point go away. Westminster politicians with a penchant for empty promises and circular back-stabbing are, I’m afraid, harder to get rid of, since you can’t even sack one without inadvertently electing a replica. Until we learn not to give attention-seeking loudmouths a respectful hearing, but to fling them into the nearest dungeon and throw away the key, this problem will simply continue.
If only we had some sort of Ark to take us away from it all. Whatever the uncertainties of the voyage, I’d happily clamber on board and I’m sure a lot of people living around me would too. We could give it an ambitious forward-looking name, such as the “Ark of Prosperity”. What would we use for currency? You know, I don’t flaming care.