Friday, 31 January 2014

Floods in literature


Perhaps the most famous flood story in literature concerns one that fails to happen in a book that was never written. Children all over the world have been transfixed by the tale of the little Dutch boy who is on his way home one evening and spots a hole in a dyke, then spends the whole night in the freezing cold blocking it with his finger, knowing that if for a moment he deserts his post, the waters will rush in, bringing disaster to his neighbours and loved ones.
Those who believe the story is true, or at the very least a time-honoured legend, can be forgiven, as a number of Dutch towns have put up memorials to the young hero (pictured). In fact, the tale comes from a book-within-a-book, written in 1865 by the American children’s writer, Mary Mapes Dodge. Her Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates includes a passage in which a school class reads the little boy’s story aloud from a fictional work called The Hero of Haarlem.
My new book Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books) tells how floods have been described in literature from Alexander Pushkin through George Eliot, Emile Zola, William Faulkner and Mervyn Peake to modern science fiction.
A number of fictional accounts, such as Pushkin’s epic poem, The Bronze Horseman, and Zola’s ‘naturalist’, almost documentary, story, The Flood, are based on real events, while modern writers as diverse as J. G. Ballard, Bernard Malamud and Stephen Baxter have conjured up world-destroying apocalyptic deluges.

*Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books. ISBN 978 1 78023 196 9) also includes chapters on the deadliest floods in history, how so many religions have stories of apocalyptic floods, how floods have been portrayed in art and films, how some of the most ambitious structures ever built by humans have been erected to protect against flooding, and how climate change may now be making humanity more vulnerable than ever to the waters.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The worst floods in history


The worst natural disaster ever happened in 1931 when the Yellow River and the Yangtze burst their banks in China, flooding an area nearly as big as England. Up to 3.75 million people lost their lives in the flood itself, then in the famine and disease that swept through the country in its wake. The second deadliest natural disaster ever was another flood of the Yellow River in 1887, which cost up to 2.5 million lives.
In fact, the Yellow River burst its banks an estimated 1,500 times over three millennia, to be given the name ‘China’s Sorrow’.  Another of its floods in 1938 (pictured) cost the lives of up to 800,000 people, but this was a man-made flood, as the Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, ordered dykes to be blown up to slow the advance of the invading Japanese army.
Floods come in many shapes and sizes, and China was also the scene of the world’s deadliest dam burst, with the collapse in 1975 of a number of Gerry-built structures erected as part of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, at the cost of up to 230,000 lives.
We usually think of rain causing floods, but the culprit in Peru in 1941 was a heat wave. It caused a huge lump of ice to fall off a mountain into Lake Palcacocha, making it overflow and sending a torrent racing through towns and villages, drowning 7,000 people.

*For the full story, see my new book, Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books) ISBN 978 1 78023 196 9. It also includes chapters on how so many religions have stories of apocalyptic floods, how floods have been portrayed in literature, art and films, how some of the most ambitious structures ever built by humans have been erected to protect against flooding, and how climate change may now be making humanity more vulnerable than ever to the waters.
** Here's a review of the book. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-35616955.html


Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Apocalyptic floods in religions


The story of Noah is one of the best-known in the Bible – the universal flood, the warning to the one righteous man to save his family, the ark, the dove that goes out to find land, the sacrifice to God, the re-population of the earth.
But dozens of religions in different parts of the world have their own tales of apocalyptic deluges - perhaps a reflection of the fact that floods are the natural disaster most commonly suffered by humanity.
A story from the Middle East even older than Noah’s, The Epic of Gilgamesh, shows striking similarities. It relates how, as human beings grew in numbers, they started to make so much noise that the gods decided to destroy them all, apart from a solitary good man and his family who were tipped off, enabling them to escape in a huge boat.
Apart from the Middle East, tales of apocalyptic floods are also found in Greece and India, in south-east Asian countries such as Burma, Vietnam, and Indonesia; in New Guinea and Australasia; in many South Pacific Islands, the Philippines, Taiwan, the Kamchatka peninsula of Far Eastern Russia, Lithuania, Transylvania, and all over North and South America.

*For the full story, see my new book, Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books) ISBN 978 1 78023 196 9. It also includes chapters on the deadliest floods in history, how floods have been portrayed in literature, art and films, how some of the most ambitious structures ever built by humans have been erected to protect against flooding, and how climate change may now be making humanity more vulnerable than ever to the waters.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Haiti 4 years on - recovery stalled


Four years to the day after the devastating Haiti earthquake that killed perhaps a quarter of a million people, the government is facing heavy criticism over the slow pace of reconstruction.

In the capital, Port-au-Prince, the cathedral and the presidential palace still lie in ruins. Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said last week he was going to ‘press on the accelerator’, but the opposition accused the government of failing to implement the recovery plan negotiated with foreign donors.

Both parties agree, though, that a lot of the money went on emergency aid rather than rebuilding, and they also say that some of the promised funds never arrived. Mr Lamothe has asked for a further $9bn in aid.

Nearly 200,000 people are still living in very poor conditions in temporary shelters, while anti-government protests have been growing.

*A Spanish website has reproduced the section on the Rape of Nanking from my Historia mundial de los desastres (A Disastrous History of the World) -

Friday, 3 January 2014

Iraq: another bloody year


The mayhem unleashed by Messrs Blair and Bush when they so carelessly invaded Iraq in 2003 continues. Last year was the worst for six years, with at least 7,818 civilians and 1,050 members of the security forces killed according to the United Nations.

Since April, there has been a surge in sectarian violence following a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in Hawija. Sunni militants stepped up attacks across the country, while Shia groups launched reprisals.

Since the US-UK invasion, Al-Qaeda has emerged as a major force in Iraq, and the black flags of their allies are reported to be flying over two cities in the west of the country, Ramadi and Fallujah, showing they are still in control of parts of them.

December alone saw at least 661 civilians killed, plus 98 members of the security services, and tensions have increased this week with the arrest of a prominent Sunni MP.


*Just had news that my A Disastrous History of the World is going to be translated into Romanian. It has already appeared in Spanish and Estonian.