The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
The requisition of materials, machines, and manpower was one thing; their apportionment, with every seaboard community and low-lying area clamouring for them simultaneously, quite another. Clerks in half a dozen Ministries grew pale and heavy-eyed in a welter of demands, allocations, adjustments, redirections, misdirections, subornments, and downright thefts. But somehow, and in some places, things began to get done. Already, there was great bitterness between those who were chosen, and those who looked like being thrown to the wolves.
Phyllis went down one afternoon to look at progress of work on the riverside. Amid great activity on both banks a superstructure of concrete blocks was arising on the existing walls. The sidewalk supervisors were out in their thousands to watch. Among them she chanced upon Bocker. Together they ascended to Waterloo Bridge, and watched the termite-like activity with a celestial eye for a while.
‘Alph, the sacred river – and more than twice fives miles of walls and towers,’ Phyllis observed.
‘And there are going to be some deep but not very romantic chasms on either side, too,’ said Bocker. ‘I wonder how high they’ll go before the futility comes home to them.’
‘It’s difficult to believe that anything on such a scale as this can be really futile, but I suppose you are right,’ said Phyllis.
Bocker waved a hand at it.
‘The basis of all this is an assurance by that old fool Stackley, who is a geographer who knows damn-all about oceans, that the overall rise cannot be more than ten or twelve feet at the most. Heaven knows what he bases it on: a desire to create full employment, by the look of it. Some departments have accepted that as the authentic dope. They seem to think they can muddle through this thing as they muddle through their wars. Others, thank God, have a bit more sense. However, this isn’t being interfered with because it is felt that some kind of show is necessary for morale.’
‘I’ve had to speak to you about this undergraduate attitude before, A. B.,’ said Phyllis. ‘What is being done that’s useful?’
‘Oh, they’re working out plans,’ Bocker said, with deliberate vagueness.
They continued to regard the medley of men and machinery down below for a time.
‘Well,’ Bocker remarked, at length, ‘there must be at least one figure among the shades who is getting a hell of a good laugh out of this.’
‘Nice to think there’s even one,’ Phyllis said. ‘Who?’
‘King Canute,’ said Bocker.
We were having so much news of our own at that time that the effects in America found little room in newspapers already straitened by a paper shortage. Newscasts, however, told that they were having their own troubles over there. California’s climate was no longer Problem Number One. In addition to the difficulties that were facing ports and seaboard cities all over the world, there was bad coastline trouble in the south of the United States. It ran almost all the way around the Gulf from Key West to the Mexican border. In Florida, owners of real estate began to suffer once again as the Everglades and the swamps spilt across more and more country. Across in Texas a large tract of land north of Brownsville was gradually disappearing beneath the water. Still worse hit were Louisiana, and the Delta. The enterprise of Tin Pan Alley considered it an appropriate time to revive the plea: ‘River, Stay ’Way from My Door,’ but the river did not – nor, over on the Atlantic coast, did other rivers, in Georgia and the Carolinas.
But it is idle to particularize. All over the world the threat was the same. The chief difference was that in the more developed countries all available earth-shifting machinery worked day and night, while in the more backward it was sweating thousands of men and women who toiled to raise great levees and walls.
But for both the task was too great. The more the level rose, the further the defences had to be extended to prevent outflanking. When the rivers were backed up by the incoming tides there was nowhere for the water to go but over the surrounding countryside. All the time, too, the problems of preventing flooding from the rear by water backed up in sewers and conduits became more difficult to handle. Even before the first serious inundation which followed the breaking of the Embankment wall near Blackfriars, in October, the man in the street had suspected that the battle could not be won, and the exodus of those with wisdom and the means had already started. Many of them, moreover, were finding themselves forestalled by refugees from the eastern counties and the more vulnerable coastal towns elsewhere.
Some little time before the Blackfriars breakthrough a confidential note had circulated among selected staff, and contracted personnel such as ourselves, at EBC. It had been decided as a matter of policy in the interests of public morale, we learnt, that, should certain emergency measures become necessary, etc., etc., and so on, for two foolscap pages, with most of the information between the lines. It would have been a lot simpler to say: ‘Look. The gen is that this thing’s going to get serious. The BBC has orders to stay put, so for prestige reasons we’ll have to do the same. We want volunteers to man a station here, and if you care to be one of them, we’ll be glad to have you. Suitable arrangements will be made. There’ll be a bonus, and you can trust us to look after you if anything does happen. How about it?’
Phyllis and I talked it over. If we had had any family, we decided, the necessity would have been to do the best we could by them – in so far as anyone could possibly know what might turn out to be best. As we had not, we could please ourselves. Phyllis summed up for staying on the job.
‘Apart from conscience and loyalty and all the proper things,’ she said. ‘Goodness knows what is going to happen in other places if it does get really bad. Somehow, running away seldom seems to work out well unless you have a pretty good idea of what you’re running to. My vote is for sticking, and seeing what happens.’
So we sent our names in, and were pleased to find that Freddy Whittier and his wife had done the same.
After that, some clever departmentalism made it seem as if nothing were happening for a while. Several weeks passed before we got wind of the fact that EBC had leased the top two floors of a large department-store near Marble Arch, and were working all-out to have them converted into as near a self-supporting station as was possible.
‘I should have thought,’ said Phyllis, when we acquired this information, ‘that somewhere higher, like Hampstead or High-gate, would have been better.’
‘Neither of them is quite London,’ I pointed out. ‘Besides, EBC probably gets it for a nominal rent for announcing each time: “This is the EBC calling the world from Selvedge’s.” Goodwill advertising during the interlude of emergency.’
‘Just as if the water would just go away one day,’ she said.
‘Even if they don’t think so, they lose nothing by letting EBC have it,’ I pointed out.
By that time we were becoming highly level-conscious, and I looked the place up on the map. The seventy-five foot contour line ran down the street on the building’s western side.
‘How does that compare with the arch-rival?’ wondered Phyllis, running her finger across the map.
Broadcasting House appeared to be very slightly better off. About eight-five feet above mean sea-level, we judged.
‘H’m,’ she said. ‘Well, if there is any calculation behind our being on the top floors, they’ll be having to do a lot of moving upstairs, too. Gosh,’ she added, glancing over to the left of the map. ‘Look at their television-studios! Right down on the twenty-five foot level. There’ll be a lot of helter-skelter back to Ally-Pally, I should think.’
In the weeks just before the breakthrough London seemed to be living a double life. Organizations and institutions were making their preparations with as little ostentation as possible. Officials spoke in public with an affected casualness of the need to make plans ‘just in case’, and then went back to their offices to work feverishly on the arrangements. Announcements continued to be reassuring in tone. The men employed on the jobs were for the most part cynical about their work, glad of the overtime
There was plenty of warning this time in the parts likely to be most affected. The people took it stubbornly and phlegmatically. They had already had experience to learn by. The main response was to move possessions to upper storeys, and grumble loudly at the inefficiency of authorities who were incapable of saving them the trouble involved. Notices were posted giving the times of high-water for three days, but the suggested precautions were couched with such a fear of promoting panic that they were little heeded.
The first day passed safely. On the evening of the highest water a large part of London settled down to wait for midnight and the crisis to pass, in a sullenly bad-tempered mood. The buses were all off the streets, and the Underground had ceased to run at eight in the evening. But plenty of people stayed out, and walked down to the river to see what there was to be seen from the bridges. They had their show.
The smooth, oil surface of the river crawled slowly up the piers of the bridges and against the retaining walls. The muddy water flowed upstream with scarcely a sound, and the crowds, too, were almost silent, looking down on it apprehensively. There was no fear of it topping the walls; the estimated rise was twenty-three feet, four inches, which would leave a safety margin of four feet to the top of the new parapet. It was pressure that was the source of anxiety.
From the north end of Waterloo Bridge where we were stationed this time, one was able to look along the top of the wall, with the water running high on one side of it, and, to the other, the roadway of the Embankment, with the street lamps still burning there, but not a vehicle or a human figure to be seen upon it. Away to the west the hands on the Parliament clock-tower crawled round the illuminated dial. The water rose as the big hand moved with insufferable sloth up to eleven o’clock. Over the quiet crowds the note of Big Ben striking the hour came clearly downwind.
The sound caused people to murmur to one another; then they fell silent again. The hand began to crawl down, ten past, a quarter, twenty, twenty-five, then, just before the half-hour, there was a rumble somewhere upstream; a composite, crowd-voice sound came to us on the wind. The people about us craned their necks, and murmured again. A moment later we saw the water coming. It poured along the Embankment towards us in a wide, muddy flood, sweeping rubbish and bushes with it, rushing past beneath us. A groan went up from the crowd. Suddenly there was a loud crack and a rumble of falling masonry behind us as a section of the wall, close by where the Discovery had formerly been moored, collapsed. The water poured through the gap, wrenching away concrete blocks so that the wall crumbled before our eyes and the water poured in a great muddy cascade on to the roadway….
Before the next tide came the Government had removed the velvet glove. Following the announcement of a State of Emergency came a Standstill Order, and the proclamation of an orderly scheme of evacuation. There is no need for me to write here of the delays and muddles in which the scheme broke down. It is difficult to believe that it can have been taken seriously even by those who launched it. An unconvincing air seemed to hang over the whole affair from the beginning. The task was impossible. Something, perhaps, might have been done had only a single city been concerned, but with more than two-thirds of the country’s population anxious to move on to higher ground, only the crudest methods had any success in checking the pressure, and then not for long.
But, though it was bad here, it was still worse elsewhere. The Dutch had withdrawn in time from the danger areas, realizing that they had lost their centuries-long battle with the sea. The Rhine and the Mass had backed up in flood over square miles of country. A whole population was trekking southward into Belgium or south-east into Germany. The North German Plain itself was little better off. The Ems and the Weser had widened out, too, driving people southward from their towns and farms in an increasing horde. In Denmark every kind of boat was in use ferrying families to Sweden and the higher ground there.
For a little time we managed to follow in a general way what was happening, but when the inhabitants of the Ardennes and Westphalia turned in dismay to save themselves by fighting off the hungry, desperate invaders from the north, hard news disappeared in a morass of rumour and chaos. All over the world the same kind of thing must have been going on, differing only in its scale. At home, the flooding of the Eastern Counties had already driven people back on the Midlands. Loss of life was small, for there had been plenty of warning. Real trouble started on the Chiltern Hills where those already in possession organized themselves to prevent their being swamped by the two converging streams of refugees from the east and from London.
Within London, too, the same pattern was taking shape on a smaller scale. The dwellers in the Lea Valley, Westminster, Chelsea, Hammersmith, left their homes for the most part belatedly and reluctantly, but as the water continued to rise and forced them to move the obvious direction to take was towards the heights of Hampstead and Highgate, and as they approached those parts they began to encounter barricades in the streets, and, presently, weapons. Where they were stopped they looted, and searched for weapons of their own. When they had found them they sniped from upper windows and rooftops until they drove the defenders off their barricades and could rush them.
To the south, similar things were happening at Sydenham and Tooting Bec. Districts which were not yet flooded began to catch the panic. Although at high tide the water barely reached the fifteen foot contour as yet, the orderly mood which the Government had striven to maintain was broken. It was largely succeeded by the conviction that position was going to be nine points of survival, and the wise thing to do was to make sure of that position as soon as possible. The dwellers on the high ground took the same view, reinforced by determination to defend themselves and their property.
Over the untouched parts of Central London a mood of Sunday-like indecision hung for several days. Many people, not knowing what else to do, still tried to carry on as nearly as usual. The police continued to patrol. Though the Underground was flooded plenty of people continued to turn up at their places of work, and some kinds of work did continue, seemingly through habit or momentum, then gradually lawlessness seeped inwards from the suburbs and the sense of breakdown became inescapable. Failure of the emergency electric supply one afternoon, followed by a night of darkness, gave a kind of coup de grâce to order. The looting of shops, particularly foodshops, began, and spread on a scale which defeated both the police and the military.
We decided it was time to leave the flat and take up our residence in the new EBC fortress.
From what the short-waves were telling us there was little to distinguish the course of events in the low-lying cities anywhere – except that in some the law died more quickly. It is outside my scope to dwell on the details; I have no doubt that they will be described later in innumerable official histories.
EBC‘s part during those days consisted largely in duplicating the BBC in the reading out of Government instructions hopefully intended to restore a degree of order: a monotonous business of telling those whose homes were not immediately threatened to stay where they were, and directing the flooded-out to certain higher areas and away from others that were said to be already overcrowded. We may have been heard, but we could see no visible evidence that we were heeded. In the north there may have been some effect, but in the south the hugely disproportionate concentration of London, and the flooding of so many rails and roads, ruined all attempts at orderly dispersal. The numbers of people in motion spread alarm among those who could have waited. The fe ling that unless one reached a refuge ahead of the main crowd there might be no place at all to go was catching – as also was the feeling that an
The existence of numerous hotels, and a reassuring elevation of some seven hundred feet above normal sea-level were undoubtedly factors which influenced Parliament in choosing the town of Harrogate, in Yorkshire, as its seat. The speed with which it assembled there was very likely due to the same force as was motivating many private persons – the fear that someone else might get in first. To an outsider it seemed that a bare few hours after Westminster was flooded, the ancient institution was performing with all its usual fluency in its new home. Questions were being asked regarding the Bomb-the-Bathies policy in the Arctic, and whether it was not an observed fact that the extensive use of hydrogen and other fissile-material bombs in that region was hastening the disintegration of the icefields without producing any patently deterrent effects on the originators of the trouble? Were we not, in fact, working there to our own disadvantage?
The First Lord thought this was probably so. The House had taken the decision to bomb, against expert advice.
In answer to a further question the Foreign Secretary stated that a cessation of bombing now by our forces would make little difference since his information was that the Russians were delivering a greater weight of bombs in their sector than we were in ours – or, rather, than our American Allies were, with ourselves. Asked the reason for this sudden Kremlin rightabout, he replied:
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