Friday 5 March 2021

'Mighty Hills of Water' by Karen Maitland


Plaque marking the flood of 1606/7 in
Kingston Seamore Church
Photo: Anthony Wood
Fact is not truth – that’s something both the historical fiction writer and readers know well.

My new historical thriller The Drowned City, is set in the aftermath of a 17th century disaster when a storm-surge or a tsunami devastated the west coast of England and Wales. The bare facts are these –  In January 1607, on calm, clear day, a gigantic wave swept up the Bristol Channel. It thundered inland as far as Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles from the coast, destroying whole villages and leaving 2,000 people dead or missing. 200 square miles of agricultural land were flooded with seawater, so that even when the water receded, the fields were poisoned with salt. The Welsh coast was hit even harder than the English side, particularly the town of Cardiff. At its height, the wave is estimated to have reached 25ft, over 7.5 meters, travelling at a speed of around 38 miles per hour. 

Christmas Flood 1717 that struck the coasts of
Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia

The historical facts about this terrible disaster are chilling. But facts don’t convey the truth of the experience of being caught up in such an event. Thankfully, I’ve never personally experienced a tsunami. The nearest I came was some years ago when I was sunbathing on a beach on Greek island and I saw a long black shape speeding over the mirror-calm sea towards us. No one moved, we all just stared, trying to work out what this thing was, then everyone seemed to realise the danger at once. Adults ran, shouting, to drag children out of sea. Others grabbed possessions and we scrambled up the sand to higher ground as the large wave raced up right the beach at our heels. The wave was only few feet high and did no major damage apart from carrying off towels, bags and anything else people had abandoned as they fled. But that small experience, helped me to understand why according to the eyewitness accounts of the 1607 tsunami, people simply stood and watched as the monstrous wave charged towards them, unable to interpret what they were seeing until it was far too late. 

US army medics moving a wounded solider into
8225th MASH unit, Korea 1951
Photo: Stewart/US army

In one episode of the American TV series MASH (1972-1983) set during the Korean War (1950-53), the characters were interviewed by a famous reporter. Instead scripting this episode, the actors were told to respond to the questions put to them giving the answers they thought their own character would make. Several of the actors later said that in researching their characters they had talked to war veterans about their experiences in Korea. One unscripted answer given to the reporter by the actor William Christopher who played Father Mulcahy has stuck in my mind for years.

“When the doctors cut into a patient and it’s cold – the way it is now – steam rises from the body, and the doctor will warm his hands over the open wound. How could anyone look on that and not feel changed?”

You couldn’t invent a detail like that. You know when you hear it that someone had actually witnessed that first-hand.  It that kind of truth which conveys more about the conditions the surgeons were operating under, than the fact that each 200-bed MASH unit was treating 400 injured people every day.

2004 Tsunami, Ao Nang Province, Thailand
Photo: David Rydevik, Stockholm, Sweden

I felt that same moment of truth when in the course of researching my novel, I read the non-fiction book Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry about the aftermath of the 2011 disaster which struck the north-east coast of Japan, killing more than 18,500 people.  It is a remarkably moving and beautifully written book, and learned a lot about the search for bodies and the problems of survival afterwards. But one account told by a mother on finding the body of her little daughter after her school was engulfed by the wave, conveys more of the truth of the human experience of that terrible event than any of those numbers of dead or financial cost of the devastation.

"I rubbed the mud from cheeks and wiped it out of her mouth. It was in her nose too and in her ears. But we only had two small towels. And soon the towels were black. I had nothing else so I used my clothes … But there was muck in her eyes, and there were no towels and no water and I so licked Chisato’s eyes clean with my tongue… but I couldn’t get them clean, and the muck kept coming out." From 'Ghosts of the Tsunami' by Richard Lloyd Parry. Pub. Jonathan Cape, 2017.

Facts are important for understanding what happened, but it is the little details, these truths that only someone who experienced the event could know, which turns a report into a story we can fully connect with.


The Drowned City
by K.J. Maitland is published 1st April 2021, Headline

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

Those details are indeed very moving. Must read up more about the Somerset tsunami: I live not far from where it happened, but people don't seem to be aware of it round here - though I know Emma Carroll has recently written a children's book about it.