By the time I got out of Sheffield on Monday morning, they were already cancelling trains. On Radio 4, a presenter said something about "the wettest day for fifty years" - but I was heading to a conference in Stoke and, beyond the nuisance of having damp feet all day, didn't give it much thought. Or not until the end of the afternoon, when I stopped to check my email and saw the pictures.
It's been a strange week to be out of town. My girlfriend got stranded and had to camp out in her office for most of the first night. My old colleagues at Radio Sheffield were working 24 hour shifts, getting official information out and talking to people on the ground. Even as the flooding went down in the city itself, there have been rolling black-outs, foul mud covering large areas, and traffic chaos with the M1 closed for days.
The Fire Brigades Union general secretary, Matt Wrack, gives a sense of the scale of events:
We have witnessed the biggest rescue effort in peacetime Britain by our emergency services, and it's not over yet. Fire crews and officers have been working to the point of collapse. Emergency fire control operators have been under major pressure, with thousands of extra calls for assistance from the public...
The government has not understood the scale, gravity and severity of what has happened.
The same could be said of large parts of the London media (the Guardian included) - which have prioritised not only the Downing Street handover, but such momentous events as the release of Paris Hilton and the Spice Girls reunion. If it were Bluewater [big shopping centre, near London] and not Meadowhall that was six feet deep in water and sewage, there would be rather more fuss.
I was in two minds whether to write this post. It seems kind of petty to moan about the metropolitan parochialism of the British media, when there are plenty of more useful things to be done. But I'm not at home to pitch in - so all I can do is admire the efforts of members of the Sheffield Forum and the local Freecycle group, and contrast them to the BBC producer who could be heard expressing his opinion over footage of the floods: "I do hate the Sheffield Accent with a passion... sorry, I don't mean to be a snob... they sound ignorant." [The offending clip has now been removed from BBC Online, but I heard it with my own ears.]
One piece of bigotry like that, for all it lets down the BBC's staff on the ground, would hardly be worth mentioning - if it wasn't something that us northerners experience on a daily basis. Stuart Maconie, a BBC broadcaster himself, writes eloquently about the same phenomenon in the conclusion to his wonderful 'Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North':
On a rainy drive across the Lancashire moors, I caught a short Radio 4 'issue-based' story about childlessness but, for me, it was the minor detail that provoked the most thought. The protagonist was an academic with a cut-glass accent. She had lost a daughter called Cordelia and her neighbour was a TV producer. At no point was there any suggestion that these people and this milieu were in any way out of the ordinary. This was incredibly telling, I thought. Most people have never met either a Cordelia or a television producer. But as they discussed their (literally) extraordinar lives in voices of crystalline poshness, their remoteness from life as most of us live it was never acknowledged.
If, however, you turn on a Radio 4 play and the voices are northern, it will inevitably be all about 'being northern'. About how poor or cute or funny or indomitable we are. It will never be simply set in Sheffield or Hull or Wigan because it can be and should be. It will never be about an adulterous dentist who just happens to live in Bootle. It will be in some ways about his Scouseness... Some writers may think this is complimentary. In fact, it's patronising. It's in effect saying that you have to have a strong dramatic reason, a 'hook', in order to set your play outside the M25. The fact that most of the country actually lives there isn't good enough evidently.