London Is Drowning and I Live by the River

Flooding has been high on the minds of denizens of the British capital forever, really, because it is an island after all.

by Marshall Bowden

When Russian propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov spouts that it would take only a blast from a Ruskie nuclear drone sub to blow away the United Kingdom with a radioactive tsunami the likes of which have never been seen, well it takes me right back to 1979-1980 when the idea of a nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the West seemed like a very real possibility. The Doomsday Clock stood at three minutes to midnight, the closest it had ever been to assured mutual destruction. Good times, I know.

There were a number of recordings that talked about this–Prince’s Controversy album, which pushed back against the incoming conservative society signaled by America’s election of Ronald Reagan as president, included the track “Ronnie Talk to Russia” in which he pleaded with Reagan to find a way to get along with the Soviets. Of course, it was also the topic of his party hit “1999” released just two years later: ‘Mommy/Why does everybody have a bomb?” 

But no band captured the dread of the moment for those of us who were young like The Clash. After all, they had labelled themselves ‘The only band that matters’ much as the Rolling Stones were self-christened ‘the greatest rock & roll band in the world.’ From the opening minor chords of “London Calling” to the martial bass and drum lines and Joe Strummer’s town crier-style rooster crow the band has your ear before you know it.

For an American, the line “London is drowning and I live by the river” seems kind of a throwaway at first, a bit of grey-level pessimism on a par with ‘whoopee we’re all gonna die,’ but then it sinks in that this is Dylan-level poetry and evocation of the band’s country and culture. I know that not every revered artist is an enfant terrible, but I kind of think maybe Shakespeare was a little more  like Joe Strummer than Joseph Fiennes.

Flooding has been high on the minds of denizens of the British capital forever, really, because it is an island after all. The 1928 Thames Flood was the last time that central London was actually underwater, but the North Sea Flood of 1953 was significant enough that it obsessed British engineers keen on finding a way to protect London from a flood surge caused by water from the sea. The Thames Barrier, looking like something out of a Kate Bush video, was suggested and designed in the 1970s and became operational in 1984, close to five years after the release of London Calling.

The Thames Barrier

But every protection has its limits, and a tsunami of the type Kiselyov is suggesting would certainly top the defenses and lead to widespread flooding, possibly with nuclear-contaminated water. So the Russian Federation threat is meant to strike at the heart of the British psyche, a primordial fear of flooding due to being surrounded by water. And it comes with a side order of nuclear threat, and it turns out that Strummer was worried about that too, though in 1979 it came in the wake of concerns over the partial meltdown of a nuclear energy facility in the United States, Three Mile Island. 

In one verse he precedes the ‘London is drowning’ line with ‘a nuclear error/but I have no fear.’ Why no fear? Because London is drowning/and I live by the river.  A giant FU to the forces that would lead us here, the forces of runaway capitalism, of racism, of fascism and authoritarianism and their goons. I live by the river. And I will continue to because, just like the wharf rat, however many drown in the pit of despair you dig, there will always be more of us. The people.

Another song from this period made more haunting by recent events is Thomas Dolby’s “One of Our Submarines,” inspired by the intrigue of World War II submarines that trolled the waters of the Black Sea and beyond. The British used submarines to break German naval blockades, while the Soviet fleet maintained absolute superiority over Nazi allies in the Black Sea region. Submarine warfare is, by its very nature, clandestine. Since they exploit geographic weaknesses that could be useful in any conflict, the cards of submarine warfare are generally played very close to the vest. It creates an almost Casablanca-like view of the world, filled with secrecy, romance, intrigue, murder, and money, an ambiance that successfully permeates Dolby’s debut album Golden Age of Wireless. But ‘One of Our Submarines’ is special. 

Over a vocal loop meant to sound like a radar Dolby intones the opening lines: “One of our submarines is missing tonight/They say she ran aground on maneuvers…” The song was inspired by Dolby’s uncle, who died as a crewman on a submarine, HMS P48, a submarine of the U class, during World War II. Family stories had always led him to believe that the sub was lost on maneuvers, probably in a non-combat situation, but it turned out to be quite a different story, as he revealed in 2018:

“In the 35+ years since I wrote the song, a great deal more information about P48 has come to light. Certain naval records have become declassified. Commissioned in 1942, she had a short-lived but quite action-packed career. In particular, it is now known that Stephen’s sub, P48, was actually lost off the coast of Tunisia. She was depth charged by the Italian torpedo boat Ardente on Christmas Day in 1942 at 37°15’N, 10°30’E, near to Zembra Island. She was tracking an important enemy ship convoy, one of which she may have destroyed. It is not clear whether she sank right away or survived initially only to perish elsewhere.”

Dolby’s song is much less direct than that of The Clash, and his take is more historic and a bit romantic, but the point is much the same–the horror and uncertainty that war creates both in the world and in the mind. One of our submarines is missing, I live by the river, and now you say you’ll take out the whole island with a nuclear depth charge-powered tsunami? 

In the words of another famous Brit, get off of my cloud.

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