There’s a moment in the opera Peter Grimes when inhabitants of the Borough-Aldeburgh in Suffolk-fear that the storms will overwhelm the town. At Grimes’s own hut, the cliff face has already crumbled.
Watching the production at ENO on Saturday, we couldn’t help being struck by the topicality. Noye’s Fludde might have been even more appropriate. Coming from Lowestoft, Britten knew about floods. Half of Aldeburgh had disappeared to them; the Moot Hall, which used to stand in the middle of the town, is now practically on the beach. Characters in Peter Grimes are fatalistic. The tale was taken from George Crabbe’s early- 19th-century poem The Borough. Life then was uncertain for maritime communities:
Hark! to those sounds!
they’re from distress at sea;
How quick they come!
What terrors may there be!
It wasn’t much better when the opera was written, during the Second World War. Since then, we’ve become over-confident about our powers to micromanage Nature. We drain, we build on places that previously flooded on a regular basis; we then wonder if a little flooding wouldn’t be a price worth paying for the sake of restoring the boggy places beloved of wetland birds. Only a little flooding isn’t what we’ve got. The first lesson of these winter storms should be humility.
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