When a grade school teacher washes away a youngster’s home-made candy, her colleagues declare that the homemade goodies “are fattening.” So how is it that the teachers she teaches and her students have never been defined by what they put into their bodies? In her provocative new memoir, A World Beneath the Sands, British journalist and social commentator Toby Wilkinson muses on this question in a tale set against the staggering implications of a badly designed water pipe that causes a flood that kills several hundred people in Bradford, in England.
“If I understood it at all, this whole disaster seemed to show us that the rules we believe to be so simple and neat — at least on the surface — are not, really,” Wilkinson writes. “We can do anything we want to if we have the brain power to do it.”
In her vivid narrative, Wilkinson gives voice to the authorities as well as ordinary citizens in this story. A complex web of government, environment and commerce, she shows how politics is largely a matter of local corruption. While she argues that corrupt government officials have successfully subverted water control before, here they outmaneuvered the causes of the disaster.
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The children who plucked floating sugar from the mud along with salty sea water are trying to reach the sea. They are from Waterford, a port town on the Irish Sea. Many are from the poor Irish seaside community of Staines, waiting to catch a boat to the Irish or Scottish coasts to work in the fishing trade.
Their basic lives seem idyllic. “These lives were the kind of lives I so regularly try to engage with as a journalist: close and genuinely communal; solid and happy families where the kids play in the park, learn Latin in the classroom, go to bed early, and wake up to the light of an easy morning,” Wilkinson writes. “Many of the men tended the land. Their wives tended the garden.”
But the system doesn’t run smoothly. Money is allocated according to the level of damage each family’s home suffered. The 400 people who died were all affected — in some way — by the flood, and so they got the bare minimum to live on, a lifetime of welfare. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a catastrophic failure of the man-made waterworks caused a building collapse that killed a woman and wounded two children, her two-year-old son “propped up on one side and his one-year-old sister, who was playing on the floor in the care of the older child.”
A world where students are tested on their math and English knowledge, and disaster strikes — at every conceivable time and place — simply isn’t a world Wilkinson would want to live in. That’s part of the power of this book. When the one woman they have been studying and teaching declares, “I’m not a nun,” or the boy from the Irish coast says, “I’m not a doctor,” or the small boy “tears into his exercise book” with childish rage: Wilkinson touches off a bout of rage-induced family ructions in this town that would discomfit Gulliver.
Because she is a working journalist, Wilkinson has an insightful appreciation of how power corrupts in modern-day society. However, A World Beneath the Sands is uneven as a novel, with two parts: “the story of the wall,” and “the story of the social gathering.” In the second, she interviews teachers and parents, writing that “what often emerges is the ghost of Rachel Feeney, the Ripper (1966) perpetrator.”
Most readers will probably want to return to the first. The world of port towns and fishing camps is a world Wilkinson writes well about — no wonder a young Irish lad, who started playing in the park with Wilkinson’s son, eventually moved to the West Yorkshire town. Perhaps her next book will look at the storms that lash this area.