It's an odd experience, finding yourself in the middle of a drama that's also being played out in the mainstream media. Especially when that coverage has such little connect with how it felt living it on the ground.
On Boxing Day I was caught up in the Calder Valley floods in Yorkshire. My elderly parents were stranded in their Hebden Bridge apartment, and although their flat remained dry, hundreds of others weren't so lucky. A flood of biblical proportions swept through the valley, wiping out the heart of several Pennine towns. It's hard to put into words the ferocity of the deluge suffice to say that the travel agency in Mytholmroyd ended up in the river. Who knows why this valley has become increasingly prone to these assaults. Is it climate change or Environmental Agency cut backs? Or is it a result of the idiot practice of burning surrounding moorland so a handful of Toffs get their jollies blasting grouse out of existence on the so-called Glorious Twelfth? Whatever the causes the awful truth is that this was the third of these 'once in a lifetime' floods in 3½ years, with each being worse than the one before.
I spent the night of the flood on my parent's sofa, listening to the eerie clatter of the contents of their cellar crashing about as water oozed away, leaving everything caked in a shit, piss and petrol sludge. A shell shocked community started work early, shovelling the Norovirus soup that engulfed the town, contaminating all it came into contact with. A substation had exploded leaving most properties without power, but within hours The Trades Club music venue had become a candlelit hub, a place of refuge and free soup kitchen. The Town Hall still had electricity and soon it's main hall was chockablock with donated free food and cleaning supplies. A labrador sat under a sign offering 'cuddles'. The noticeboard had offers of 'lovely things' - head massages, Reiki, reflexology. It was open 24 hours a day, providing warmth, refreshments, phone chargers and comfort.
With cash points trashed and no money changing hands a benign kind of lawlessness broke out. Anarchy is usually presented as violent and chaotic, but here people instinctively knew what to do and took control. The atmosphere was electric. The emergency services, cut back, overstretched and thin on the ground, were bolstered by the arrival of biker gangs from Bradford. Surprisingly the Police welcomed their vigilante back-up and shared a Tarantino meets Alan Bennett base camp at the local haberdashers. At some point Cameron was rumoured to have flown overhead in a helicopter - maybe this uniting of a community fitted in with his so-called Big Society. But truth is this community was already highly evolved and didn't need a kicking from Mother Nature for it to pull together.
All of this could easily be dismissed as a heartwarming story of community spirit and Northern Grit if it weren't for the arrival of a minibus of Sikhs from Slough. Soon the Slough Sikhs were joined by a Muslim Youth Association from Croydon and Syrian refugees from Manchester. I can sniff out a Neo Nazi a mile away and I'm fairly certain there were no Ukippers, Britain First or EDL helping out their fellow countrymen. Fresh food was being shipped in daily from Bradford - in one day I was offered eight chickpea curries. And the volunteers kept arriving. From Nottingham, Coventry, Hartlepool, Milton Keynes... There was Dave from Meterplus who got my parent's electricity back on at eleven o'clock at night. And the smiling Wessex Water men who gave up their Christmas break to travel from a Thomas Hardy novel to pump out our drains. A guy from London who hired dehumidifiers and drove them to Yorkshire because they were impossible to hire locally. The Army rumbled into town but somehow lacked the joie de vivre of our volunteer friends. They looked underwhelmed at the prospect of spending their Christmas leave filling sandbags under leaden skies in the pissing Pennines rain.
The town centre was virtually wiped out, so inevitably there will be casualties. Because despite this flood repeatedly being described as 'unprecedented' by government ministers, insurers refuse to cover businesses and homes in the valley. But this is a town that punches above it's weight and already some of the worst hit shops are popping up in drier venues. The organic food co-operative has taken over a room in a mill, the shoe shop is having a sale in the old egg factory and school kids are selling confectionary donated by manufacturers, at a mobility store, raising funds for a popular sweet shop.
But none of us who lived through the horror will forget the kindness of Muslims, Sikhs and Syrian refugees turning up in towns with which they had no connection to provide food, comfort and a helping hand. The One Show did a pedestrian piece about the predominantly white infant school reopening in time for the new term, despite having filmed, then edited out, an interfaith church service headed by a Sikh, an Imam and the local vicar. Perhaps the BBC worried that middle England could only stomach so much multicultural harmony during their evening meal.
Sadly Traffic Wardens are due back at the beginning of February and I suppose that will mark the end of our rainy, dank, shit smelling Utopia. Last flood we had Prince Charles, this flood we got Prince Andrew. Next flood I reckon they'll just send up Seven Dwarfs and a Nolan sister to pretend to give a shit. Because many of us feel abandoned to our fate by the rosy cheeked monsters of Westminster, and time and time again I hear the question "what if this was London?" But maybe that's the answer. If central government really wants to encourage a Big Society then perhaps it should divert the Thames through the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea because no one gives a monkeys about each other there.Suggest a correction