Novel born out of the 1953 East Coast floods

Floods 1953 - Sea PallingTroops, mostly Air Force seal a gap in the dunes at Sea Palling. Peter Ba

Floods 1953 - Sea PallingTroops, mostly Air Force seal a gap in the dunes at Sea Palling. Peter Bagshaw's book A Gap in the Dunes was inspired by these events. - Credit: Archant

Inexorably 2013 is slipping away, a year during which many older folk hereabouts thought back to the calamitous East Coast floods which have been in the figurative spotlight on this 60th anniversary of that January disaster.

Floods 1953 - Sea PallingTroops, mostly Air Force seal a gap in the dunes at Sea Palling. Peter Ba

Floods 1953 - Sea PallingTroops, mostly Air Force seal a gap in the dunes at Sea Palling. Peter Bagshaw's book A Gap in the Dunes was inspired by these events. - Credit: Archant

That was 1953, before my entry into journalism, but my future Eastern Daily Press and Eastern Evening News colleagues – chief reporter Joe Harrison, his deputy Peter Bagshaw and photographer Les Gould – worked almost round the clock to keep the newspaper-buying public and the county abreast of the disaster, its repercussions and its aftermath as they unfolded.

This June I mentioned Joe (a long-serving Peggotty) in this column, prompting memories for another former Yarmouth journalist, Tony Mallion, who for a time was his opposite number as Mercury chief reporter in our Regent Street offices.

Tony writes: “Your recollections of Joe came, coincidentally, just a couple of days after we’d been visiting family members holidaying at Sea Palling on a glorious summer’s day. It was a very far cry from a winter storm and, particularly, the devastating flooding of January 1953 which claimed so many lives and wreaked havoc to the area.

“My sister-in-law suggested crossing the road to the amusement arcade and cafe where, she said, the walls were lined with pictures and news reports of the flooding, plus various EDP commemorative supplements marking subsequent anniversaries. It was indeed fascinating.

“Among the 1953 memories framed on the walls were those of the current Peggotty, as well a detailed account from the late Joe Harrison of that fateful night and his own experiences reporting around the Yarmouth area. It was all gripping stuff, all the more so because I’d also known and worked with this fine journalist.

“For many years Joe’s EDP/EEN deputy was the late Peter Bagshaw, another great reporter and a lovely man who had an additional claim to fame.

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“He was a published author who had written a novel, called The Gap in the Dunes, inspired by the 1953 flooding at Sea Palling (and the work of Caister lifeboat before it became independent of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution).

“Peter (a Dunkirk veteran), was a very modest man but one day told me during a chat how this book had come about. It seemed that a former female reporter had gone from Yarmouth to Fleet Street (traditional home of national newspapers) and also began to write romantic fiction.

“Peter had somehow got into a heated discussion with her about the somewhat rarefied characters of her books. So she challenged him to write one himself – about ordinary working people.

“That’s what he did, basing it around the fishermen and other villagers. Sea Palling became Brandiston and the main characters were Benny and Gladys. He wrote the book, published by Hodder and Stoughton, in 1959.

“Peter explained that at his home in Ormesby they either didn’t have television or only had BBC so there wasn’t so much distraction, and he settled down to the task of writing after his two daughters had gone to bed!

“Telling me about it was one thing, getting to read it – and I was both curious and envious – was another. This was by now the 1970s and the book was long out of print; nor did it show up in a library search. And Peter wasn’t volunteering a copy. I left the matter on the back burner.

“In 1980 Peter retired (on the day of a civic lunch to celebrate the Mercury’s centenary). He had planned to do some freelance work and, who knows, may have also had ideas for another book. Sadly none of this was to be. He died suddenly only three months into his retirement, aged 62, a great sadness to everyone who knew him.

“Fast forward to 1983 when I left the Mercury to become the first editor of what was then a rival publication, the Advertiser. During my year there before going into broadcasting, I wrote many advertising features, including one about a very large second-hand bookshop in Northgate Street, opened by Wheatley’s.

“Off I went to have a look and do an interview. Imagine my delight when virtually the first volume I spotted among so many was... Peter Bagshaw’s elusive The Gap in the Dunes! I based the whole Advertiser piece around my discovery and finally got to read the book.

“I treasure it still. Peter probably did some sort of promotional work around the time of publication because this copy, for which I paid 25p, was personally signed ‘Peter Bagshaw, Caister-on-Sea, 1959’. So the memories have certainly come flooding back and, after three decades, I’ve been prompted to re-read this everyday story of ordinary folk. Very good it is too!”

I am ashamed to admit that, although I joshed with Peter many a time about his book (invariably I dubbed it ‘The Sap in the Prunes’), I have never read it. Do local public libraries still have it on their shelves, perhaps under lock-and-key as a rarity?

One copy was being advertised by online retailer Amazon when I Googled it recently. The price and postage and packing were in Canadian dollars but converted to about £20 for the novel and £4 for postage.

Throughout his journalistic years at Yarmouth, when Through the Porthole was a nightly feature in the Eastern Evening News, Peter also wore the Peggotty mantle on countless occasions when regular scribe Joe Harrison was away.

He was also bylined Bloater in the Satuday night Eastern Football News (the Pink ‘Un) for his weekly Yarmouth Town notes during the football season, and in the summer for the EEN he penned many interviews with the showbusiness stars undertaking long runs at the resort’s theatres.

Despite the pressures of always writing against the clock to ensure his reports were in time for the various editions of the morning and evening newspapers, Peter had a gift of being able to turn the most complex and convoluted official documents into stories that were easy to read and understand (“translasting them into English”, he used to quip in his whimsical way).

Peter’s father and brother Stanley were also prominent Norfolk newsmen.