I’ve performed my poems on various BBC stations over the years, but one of the most exciting challenges was when they commissioned me to write a poem for a video commemorating horrific floods that struck the county of Northamptonshire in 1998.
Previously, I’d stepped down from doing any radio work for a couple of years as a result of a significant change to my domestic circumstances. Divorce is tough, and I simply hadn’t had the head space to write to a deadline like a radio show… and then perform as well!
However, as the dust had begun to settle, I’d realised I was missing the challenge. My mind must have been dwelling on this more than I was aware, for having wafted out into the ether, my thoughts clearly hit a sweet spot. Within just a few weeks of me admitting to myself that I was itching to get going again… an email came in.
“Hi GK,” it said. “Hope you’re well. My name’s Anna, I work at BBC Radio Northampton, usually producing the Breakfast show, but I’m working on a more unusual project at the moment — which I’d love to chat to you about.”
I was intrigued. She continued.
“This April marks 20 years since devastating floods hit parts of Northamptonshire. It happened over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend of 1998, and the St James and Far Cotton areas of Northampton were particularly badly hit. 2,500 properties were damaged by floodwater as high as 5 feet in some places. Thrapston, Geddington, Silverstone, Weedon, Kislingbury and other villages were also flooded. It’s thought in all around 10,000 people were affected — and sadly two women died.
People were rescued from their homes in as many boats as the emergency services could get their hands on, the army was drafted in to help, and emergency shelters were set up in village halls and community centres, and stories of community, camaraderie and a true Dunkerque spirit emerged.
Obviously at the time, it was a huge story — and I’m beginning to look at how we cover the 20th anniversary.
And this is where it gets more unusual — and why I’m emailing you!
My plan is to spend some time gathering people’s memories of the time — those who were evacuated from their homes, those who worked for the emergency services, those who volunteered to help out their neighbours in their time of need, etc.
And I’d like those memories to be turned into a poem — in a grand gesture to mark the 20th anniversary. I really enjoyed listening to you and your work when you appeared on Drive with Rob, so I thought of you!
First off, is this project something you may be interested in collaborating with us on? And if so, could I give you a call to chat it through?”
Is Donald Trump orange?
Naturally… I jumped up screeching, “Yes!!!” and then composed myself. That had been a loud screech, but I doubted Anna had heard me, even so.
Some face-to-face chats with local residents
She organised two drop-in sessions in different parts of the county. They were well-attended and great fun. My plan had been to gather words from folk that summed up their experience.
Both sessions ended up being very productive. Naturally, “wet” and “raining” came up a lot, but some had a few other ideas too, and I wanted to include as many as I could in the final poem.
I regret not managing to squeeze ‘dancing hippos’ in, but you can’t win everything.
The next step was to write the poem
As tends to be the case with the stuff I do for the BBC radio folks, it usually shapes up pretty quickly over a couple of hours. What takes the time, is letting it sit, and then reviewing and editing it. For this, I let that occur over a few days.
Finally ready to let it go — there’s nothing like a BBC deadline to force that moment of release — I sent it over and held my breath.
Making the video
They… were delighted, thank goodness. The full poem was to be aired on the day of the anniversary on radio. However, the video was to be an abridged version. So, the next ‘job’ was to arrange a date to film.
Being a radio person, the thought of being on camera filled me with horror, but it went better than I expected. As you can see from the video, I’m a casual bird, so I didn’t dress up. But what really made this poem special was the fact they got a small handful of the locals who’d contributed information to do some of the lines. These were the people who’d actually experienced the nightmare, and I felt privileged to be a part of this moving commemoration of what had been a traumatic 48 hours.
I’m not one to blow my own trumpet, so writing about this experience has been hard. However, it is something I’m extremely proud of. You can watch the video on the link below. I hope you enjoy watching and listening as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Good Friday… Not a Dry Day — The Unabridged Version
And so it fell, came teeming down. County-wide round Northants Town
In river, field, canal, and drain, did pour this endless curtain of rain
Day turned to night, folk went to bed; unaware they soon would wake with dread
For as they slept, snug ‘neath their sheets, water crept through Northants’ streets
Concern began round one o’clock, when many woke to fear and shock
And then, by three, the truth was dawning; chaos would rule by the morning
Quick! Plug the gaps. Stack the sandbags. Grab your coats and grab your handbags
Save the telly! Pile the chairs! Move the furniture, head upstairs!
Lock the doors. Block invaders. Ditch the wellies; switch to waders!
Watch your footing underneath. And don’t forget to bring your teeth!
And all the while the drains were brimming, filthy soup with sewage swimming
Water finding the furthest reaches, filled with diesel, dirt, and leeches
Buoyant benches. Bobbing cars. Waves a-lapping ‘neath the stars
Dinghies, jet skis, skiffs, canoes; paddling through the floating poos
An unrelenting heartless power, it seeped its way up bath and shower
Left carpets moving, and loos a-bubbling. Inside. Outside. All was troubling
But generous folk live in Northants. Some doled out tea, and socks, and pants
Community spirit in such a calamity. Heroic rescue; gallant humanity
As morning came, terror shifted; moving downstream, the horror drifted
Boats came out… but this weren’t plain sailing. For decisions made saw flood plans failing
The aftermath. All muck and grime. Walls marked with a grubby, green tideline
Squelching carpets, fish left stranded, lining lounge floors where they’d landed
Contamination. Crazy dreams of hippos dancing in the streams
Wacky stories for the scoreboards, like plants soon growing up though floorboards
Such devastation, who’s to blame? ’Twas time to start each insurance claim
“Yes, it poured, like one big stair rod. What?! Not covered, for such an Act of God?
You’re saying, as streets had flowed like rivers, that The Lord just taketh whilst he delivers
When a month of rain fell in one day, and houses ‘just’ got in the way…
Oh, water don’t ‘alf ‘ave bad habits. Destroying homes and killing rabbits
Taking life and causing harm. We need it, but boy, does it lack charm!
Still now, at times, some fear the rain. Concerned the floods will come again
But all feel relief, now each Good Friday, when the Met Office says it will be a dry day.