Thursday, February 13, 2014

Literary maps for a drowned England

When I heard that Shepperton - home of J.G. Ballard, the author of The Drowned World - was flooded, I realised that fantasy fiction provides the best map of our new landscape.

Richard Cowper published The Road to Corlay, the first volume of his trilogy The White Bird of Kinship, in 1978. It is set a thousand years in the future when Britain is a theocracy and low-lying areas of the country have been flooded.

The map on the endpapers - and ever since discovering Malcolm Saville I have believed that every book should have a map on its endpapers - shows that much of the West Country has become the Somersea. And some present-day characters who are in touch with this future by some form of clairvoyance finally make sense of it:
On the way they passed through the Outpatients' waiting room. One wall was decorated with a large scale relief map of the whole area surrounding Taunton. Ian walked over to it and contemplated it thoughtfully. "Look here," he said. "Just suppose this area was all flooded, the Quantocks would be an island and so would the Blackdown Hills."
Richard Cowper, incidentally, was the pen name of John Middleton Murray Jnr. His father - also called John Middleton Murray - was the husband of Katherine Mansfield and a confederate of D.H. Lawrence.

As for the flooded Thames Valley, Richard Jefferies foresaw that as long ago as 1885. Here he is writing in After London:
Looking new eastwards, across the Lake, he saw a vast and beautiful expanse of water, without island or break of any kind, reaching to the horizon. 
He knew the Lake was very wide, but it had never occurred to him that he might possibly sail out of sight of land.This, then, was why the mariners would not quit the islands; they feared the open water. He stood up and swept the horizon carefully, shading his eyes with his hand. He was alone with the sun, the sky, and the Lake.
My photograph shows Coate Water outside Swindon, which was Jefferies' home for part of his boyhood and surely the inspiration for the Lake.

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