‘Have you been out?” I ask my 16-year-old, who rolls his eyes. I’m committed to providing my sons with continuity in a world in crisis and that means asking this idiotic question daily. (I alternate this with my other greatest hits: “How was your day” and “Have you drunk enough water?”)
“Yeah,” he says.
“Did you go down to the river?”
Another eye-roll. “Obviously.”
“Obviously,” because York flooded again last week. It happens every winter, sometimes catastrophically. This year’s flooding thankfully avoided human or economic disaster (on top of the one we’re already experiencing), but provided impressively high water to go and stare at.
And we do stare: the whole family and everyone else, standing taking pictures of the submerged cityscape from the bridges, or peering down the steps to the now-inaccessible riverfront, wondering at the disappearance of familiar footpaths.
Of course, flooding is not anodyne, nor is it entertainment. It devastates homes and businesses and, as we saw in 2019, the government rarely responds adequately to that devastation. We live in a high-risk flooding zone and the only insurers who would cover us when we arrived appear, from Google Earth, to operate out of a sausage factory on an industrial estate, so, like many, I am not exactly confident everything will be OK when the waters start to rise.
But going to look at floods is a local tradition. I remember primary school outings to wave at a stranded classmate and geography trips to study flood defences in action. York people stare at flood water, like the umarell – the retired gentlemen of Bologna who like to stare at building sites. Looking at floods is respectful, I think: an acknowledgment the natural landmarks we take for granted can surprise us in wild, destructive ways. However, I watch, fascinated, some unsavoury part of me hoping to see a body – I’ve read a lot of crime fiction lately – in the fast river, full of swirling rafts of debris, or at least a dead goose. I saw one recently: I don’t think I believed geese died before that; I assumed they evolved into something even meaner and more powerful, like Pokémon.
I like staring at the floods and how that evokes past floods. I’m hopelessly nostalgic for the place where I actually live
In the park, the flood water looks like a draconian anti-loitering measure of the kind Derbyshire police might adopt. “I don’t feel like walking, I’ll just sit on a bench,” says a fellow watcher, drily, looking at the just-visible top strut of one, a tiny island in a brown sea. Despite a ground floor entirely underwater, the park cafe is serving from a first-floor hatch, which feels very autumn-winter 2020-21. It all does: another biblical trial (frogs might have been more fun).
But I like staring at the floods and how that evokes past floods. Moving back to where I grew up has done this to me: I’m hopelessly nostalgic for the place where I actually live, constantly reminded of previous versions of myself, others and the city.
Returning to the UK in 2018 has recently felt like the worst decision of my life: I feel genuine guilt at dragging my family here from lovely Brussels. I probably do not need to elaborate on that, the Guardian writer Marina Hyde does it better than I ever could every week. I was desperately homesick and keen for my francophone sons to develop a real connection with their half-homeland, but what an odd impulse it looks now: sentimental and self-indulgent. “Why do we stay on this island full of Gavin Williamson?” I often ask my French-Cambodian best friend, inexplicably as keen as I am to stay here.
Because home is home, I suppose: murky flood water and all. My husband took a beloved local friend for her vaccination at the weekend, and we deposited a coffee and croissant on my stepfather’s doorstep: that’s why, too. We chatted for a few chilly minutes: he was cycling down to check out the river, of course.
“High, isn’t it?” I say to the 16-year-old.
“So high!” he says, suddenly animated. “You can’t even get across the Millennium Bridge!”
This might never really be home for him, but my son is joining a new generation of flood-starers and there’s a strange comfort in that.
• Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist