Norwich author Zoe’s book brings 1953 memories flooding back

PUBLISHED: 20:58 30 August 2020 | UPDATED: 09:02 31 August 2020

The floods at Sea Palling in Febraury 1953

The floods at Sea Palling in Febraury 1953

It is the perfect mix of fact and fiction set at a time of real-life death and destruction along the East Anglian coast in 1953. Derek James recommends a brilliant new book

Flood hero Reis Leming, aged 22Flood hero Reis Leming, aged 22

There are those of us who enjoy novels while others tend to settle down with history books…especially ones which tell of times gone by in Norfolk and Suffolk.

The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville, out next week, is one which offers both and is written with such style and pure passion.

Today Zoe lives at Bath, where she completed a creative writing MA, but she was born and grew up in Norwich.

In those days she was Zoe Bremner. And yes, her father is none other than Bert Bremner, the former teacher, city and county councillor and so much more.

The floods hit Gorleston in February 1953The floods hit Gorleston in February 1953

When he stepped down from the city council, leader Alan Waters described him as having a “unique personality” and was a “powerhouse of energy.”

Well, he can certainly be proud of Zoe who has spent the last five years writing this no-holds barred look at the life and loves of her main character Verity Frost in North Norfolk at the time of the terrible 1953 floods.

This story has much to offer the reader. It starts in the summer of 1952 and follows the life of young Verity and the people in her life, especially local boy Arthur and American pilot Jack.

“I had these characters in my head for a long time and then I thought about the floods and decided to set their story in that era,” said Zoe.

Author Zoe Somerville. Picture: Head of ZeusAuthor Zoe Somerville. Picture: Head of Zeus

Being from Norfolk she knew about that terrible disaster but hadn’t realised just how many lives were lost and the destruction caused as the cruel sea invaded the East Coast.

Her local knowledge comes to the fore as the characters emerge. They don’t live in made-up places. This is 1950s Norfolk. The city, the towns and villages and the countryside.

Zoe, now in her early 40s, went to CNS before heading off to Sheffield University.

“I always wanted to teach and travel so I went off to work in Japan teaching English,” she said.

The Night of the Flood, the new book set in Norfolk during the 1953 flood blending fact and fiction. Picture: Head of ZeusThe Night of the Flood, the new book set in Norfolk during the 1953 flood blending fact and fiction. Picture: Head of Zeus

She also worked in France and returned to teaching in London before heading off to work in America for a couple of years.

Married to Will, Zoe is now in early 40s, and they have two children Alex and Jessie. This is her first book but it will not be her last. She has so much talent and a wonderful way with words.

“I must thank my family, especially my dad for a book-filled childhood, and my sister, Sophie, for driving me around Norfolk for research, and my amazing grandmother, Bessie, for all her love,” says Zoe.

Now, the thing is, when writing about a novel you don’t want to give the game away about what the characters we get to know so well – or do we? – are all about.

This is a work of fiction inspired by tragic, real-life events.

Life, death and dashing American airmen – just what was that charismatic Jack really up to?

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The story starts with Verity Frost stranded on her family farm on the Norfolk coast – she is caught between two worlds: The devotion of her childhood friend Arthur, just back from National Service, and a new desire for a new life in another place.

In walks Jack, and Verity sees glamour and excitement but as you can imagine Arthur is not impressed. He sees deception.

As the story develop we get to know the people living in this Norfolk communities but, as 1953 starts the water levels rise to breaking point and a tangled web of secrets, lies and passion brings about a crime which will change all their lives.

The floods are at the heart of this passionate and moving love story which also gives us a rare taste of what life was like in the early 1950s in Norfolk…and how the sea killed and destroyed on a terrifying scale.

Writing a book interweaving fiction with disasters in living memory is not easy and has to be written with utmost respect. Zoe has done just that.

The Night of the Flood by Zoe Somerville is published by Head of Zeus at £18.99 and is in the shops now or click

A night to remember: In 2020 there would be a colour-coded weather warning from the Met Office. A yellow one would have turned to red and the people would have moved away from the East Coast.

But this was a very different time. This was January 31 1953, a Saturday night, when the sea changed lives and took others.

Winds turned the angry North Sea into a raging torrent. Defences were swept aside as the water moved inland wiping out whole families, destroying homes and buildings. Life for the survivors would never be the same again.

The sea swept into King’s Lynn at 6.30pm, reached Hunstanton 30 minutes later and then powered towards Great Yarmouth causing havoc on the way. One hundred people died in Norfolk alone.

Consider this.

Soon after the 7.25 train left Hunstanton for King’s Lynn it was halted as the sea raced across the line. Minutes later a complete bungalow was swept into the train.

So many tragic stories unfolded later such as the one in Salhouse where, in one house, the water burst through the front door with such force that it broke a woman’s leg. Her husband carried her to the kitchen table but when the next wave smashed through the house it swept her away to her death.

Every coastal community was under siege as the storm travelled southwards down the curve of East Anglia. Lives were lost at Southwold. The Orwell burst its backs by Felixstowe and 39 people fdierd as the water flooded as estate of flimsy prefabs.

Harwich was completely cut off and those. Nowhere escaped. Jaywick Sands, Foulness, Southend and Canvey island on the rim of East Anglia where the entire population of 11,500 people lost their homes and 58 people their lives.

Many heroes emerged, thinking nothing of risking their own life to save others up and down the coast. The emergency services and others gave their all

At Hunstanton one of them was the late Reis Lemming, an American airman. He couldn’t swim but that didn’t stop him saving 27 people from drowning that dreadful night.

For hours he waded backwards and forwards plucking the people from the water until he collapsed. He was reported as saying later: “Shucks, it wasn’t much.”

The floods struck the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium. Around 2,550 lives were lost and communities, animals and buildings were swept away.

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