The dark tower

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On Friday, I was given a lift to Barry Norman’s funeral in the Hertfordshire village where he lived for many years. We drove north from the Radio Times office in Hammersmith, West London, and although I wasn’t looking for it, I saw the corpse of Grenfell Tower for the first time. Forgive me for taking a picture of it, but it stopped me short; it was like glimpsing the Hollywood sign for the first time in Los Angeles, or Guernica in the Reina Sofia in Madrid (neither of which landmark did I attempt to photograph, incidentally – one occurred before the ubiquity of camera-phones, the other would have been inappropriate and they were selling postcards in the gift shop). My photo of Grenfell, as we all now know it, was taken quickly, on a bad, old phone, and in motion on a roundabout, but even in this non-prizewinning form, it still it chills my blood.

Unlike the other two famous towers that were destroyed, Grenfell still stands. And in this, is it powerful. It is a constant – if not, one assumes, permanent – reminder of what went on here, in my city, in a borough I often have cause to visit, one of the wealthiest boroughs in the world, not just in London. What actually went on here, the tragedy itself, happened in a relatively short space of time. The Twin Towers in New York were destroyed in approximately an hour and three quarters, between the first impact, and the second collapse (although thousands of tons of toxic dust, comprising asbestos and other contaminants, not to mention human tissue, lingered for days, weeks, months – in fact, 18,000 people are said to have been made ill by the dust and pre-9/11 air quality did not return until June 2002). Grenfell took around 60 hours to burn itself out, having started after a fridge freezer caught fire at around 1am. There is no point in pressing any further comparisons. The towers in New York were built in the 1970s predominantly for private enterprise and were designed not to collapse, or kill anybody. Grenfell Tower, and others like it, were built as social housing, and were run and maintained by the state.

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Ironically perhaps, the Trade Center was not properly fireproofed, and in September 2001, replacement cladding was in the early stages of being replaced: only 18 floors of WTC1 had been improved before the planes hit and made that immaterial. (A fire in 1975 had affected six floors of one tower before being successfully put out.) The World Trade Center was clearly named. It was built to regenerate Lower Manhattan and around 40% of it would be leased to private, business tenants, with rent going to the Port Authority. (The rest would house government and federal offices.) Many who objected to the project felt it shouldn’t be “subsidised” (they hate that, messing with the market) and disputed the notion of a state body moving into private real estate at all. But the Port Authority, which basically controls everything that comes in and goes out of New York and New Jersey, runs on rents, fees and tolls for tunnels and bridges. It’s complicated, in other words.

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Grenfell Tower, a mere 24 storeys high, was completed a year after its taller, more aggressive New York cousins, in 1974. (The ribbon was cut on the WTC in April 1973, which meant it was up and running in time to replace the Empire State Building in a brash, oil-embargo Hollywood remake of King Kong, with the giant ape misleadingly able to put one monkey foot on either Tower and straddle it in the publicity materials.) Grenfell, named after an adjoining road, itself named after a Field Marshall who fought in the Anglo-Zulu War, was built in the Brutalist style, which I happen to rather like, as a style. (I wouldn’t want to live anywhere above three floors though.) It was nicknamed “the Moroccan Tower” by locals to reflect the ethnic bias of those who lived in it in the mid-70s. In the mid-80s, Margaret Thatcher encouraged council tenants to buy their flats and then vote for her. Only 14 of Grenfell’s 120 flats were privately owned when it burned down.

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When I ghoulishly but instinctively took a photo of the husk of Grenfell from my friend’s car on Friday I didn’t need to. The husk is on the news – certainly Channel 4 News, and London Tonight – every night. It is now almost five weeks since the fire, but just as the charcoal parody of a tower block refuses to stop sticking a middle finger into the London skyline on a round-the-clock basis, the story will not go away. Nor, inconveniently, will the surviving residents, who seem to have solidified through community spirit into a permanent working party action group on behalf of all people who live in towers in this country. Many Grenfell residents raised concerns about safety, not least fire safety, in the months before the fire, but were dismissed by Kensington and Chelsea Council as trouble makers. (This is the Tory-run council that took £55 million in rent in 2016 but invested less than £40 million in council housing.) It is not forced or wishful to view the horrific demise of at least 80 people – a figure kept lower than the assumed 100-plus by lack of DNA evidence – as a class issue. (Some found it intrusive but I didn’t when Victoria Darbyshire hugged a grieving, shellshocked eyewitness, resident and survivor live on the BBC. For me, it melted away barriers.)

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By “class” I don’t mean middle-class, or upper-class, or working-class, I mean a much starker divide: the one between people who can afford to live in London and people who frankly can’t, but stick it out and hope for the best as they have no other option on account of family, friends, local links, workplace and other fanciful factors that affect actual human beings. Suspicion was aroused among aggrieved and grieving Grenfell refugees when retired Appeal Court judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick was appointed to lead a public inquiry that even he forewarned wouldn’t satisfy everybody. (In November 2014 he’d upheld a judgment that Westminster Council could offer housing to a woman who, with her children, had been evicted from privately rented local housing and offered alternative accommodation 50 miles away. Not a great omen.) The killing joke about Grenfell is that its “refurbishment” had only ever been external; a way of improving the view for other residents ie. private ones.

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Theresa May, apparently still Britain’s Prime Minister, called Grenfell “a failure of the state,” as if perhaps “the state” was nothing to do with her, or her cabinet. It was a failure, but one that has killed over 100 people who had done nothing to deserve it except try to scrape a living in a part of London that neatly represents the poles of social experience within one arbitrary boundary. There are residential units owned in Kensington and Chelsea by billionaires in Singapore who will never step foot in them. They do not take advantage of local facilities, nor engage in local activities, for they do not live in their properties. They do not contribute to the local economy like the residents of Grenfell Tower, not even buying a packet of chewing gum from a local shop. This is the obscenity of capitalism. Not a failure of the state, but a failure of the private sector, with its tentacles into everything and its empathy for nothing. Capitalism is the bottom line. Grenfell Tower fell below that line: too full of people on the breadline, and from foreign countries, to care too much about with their petty complaints about exposed gas pipes, blocked fire exits and the “stay put” advice on each floor that might have had some credibility had the cladding used to smarten the building up from the outside not been made of petrol-soaked kindling, or something.

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Some experts and one or two Hollywood scenarists had predicted a plane crashing, accidentally, into a skyscraper. But nobody saw two hijacked passenger jets being deliberately flown into towers by synchronised suicidal madmen with pinpoint piloting skills, just after breakfast on a balmy September morning. A whole lot more people predicted a fire in Grenfell Tower.

We can only hope that the inquiry and the inquest, and whatever has to come next to compensate for the lack of clear answers and blame after the inquiry and the inquest, don’t drag this out for as long as Hillsborough. The Grenfell Action Group don’t even yet have a figure to put on their tragedy; a number to hammer home to anyone seeing their banners, or hearing their angry pleas on Channel 4.

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People don’t regard the 1970s disaster movies as progressive, or socialist. But The Towering Inferno, released in 1974, the year Grenfell opened, and based on a combination of twin novels about the tallest skyscraper in the world going on fire, had a very simple moral: if capitalism insists of building taller and taller buildings, because that’s all that capitalism has the wit to do, it must improve fire safety at a similar rate. In The Towering Inferno, dedicated to firefighters with a righteous pride in the nation’s working men and women, the 138-floor Glass Tower in earthquake-prone San Francisco lights up on the night of its gala opening because economies have been made to cut costs in its construction. It’s not quite down to poor-quality cladding bought in on the cheap while scrubbing up the outside of the building in order not to offend the eye of the rich neighbours, but the warning from history is identical.

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When good-guy architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) discovers “duct holes that weren’t fire-stopped … corridors without fire doors … sprinklers won’t work, and an electrical system that’s good for what? I mean, it’s good for starting fires! … What do they call it when you kill people?” (Mind your inflammatory language, John McDonnell!) As with many Hollywood disaster movies made for profit at a time when faith in authority was ebbing away after Vietnam and Watergate, it’s a fable of the little man, or the lone voice, against the big corporations. Ring any bells?

It would be chilling watching the film again now. (I wonder how long before a TV channel in this country will dare to show it, in actual fact.) Forget that it’s future criminal OJ Simpson playing the part of the Chief Security Officer, at one point he is asked for a “complete list of tenants,” something he seems unable or unwilling to access. We live in an age where any borough council in the country ought to be able to supply a full list of tenants in any building on their watch, at the press of a computer key. The fact that this still hasn’t happened speaks volumes about the cladding of obfuscation surrounding this issue.

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According to a report quoted in Fire magazine: a third (35%) of the lowest income households renting flats say they have been given information on the emergency fire plan for the building where they live, compared to 88% of tenants on incomes over £100,000 a year. Those on incomes of £25,000 or less are much less likely to feel completely safe from fire (27%) than those on incomes above £80,000 (44%). But two out of every nine (22%) households with incomes under £25,000 living in rented flats who have concerns over fire safety are unable to move because they can’t afford to. It’s no wonder Kensington and Chelsea have emerged even more strongly than our weak Prime Minister as the villains of this piece. The council are the ones who contracted the £10m refurbishment of Grenfell to private construction firm Rydon, who, typically for a public sector contract, in turn subcontracted some of the work, in “an illustration of the rewards on offer to private firms from social housing projects”, according to a piece in the Guardian. Rydon, who will have to account for themselves and others in the parodic food chain, landed £8.6m to “upgrade” Grenfell, including the external cladding being investigated as a potential factor in the fire’s rapid spread. (It really did spread like wildfire.)

In the disaster movie version, when the fire’s been put out by geligniting the water tanks in the roof to create the world’s biggest sprinkler (at least the Glass Tower had sprinklers, they just weren’t working), Roberts muses to Fire Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) of the burned-out tower, “I don’t know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.”

O’Hallorhan gets the last word. “You know, one of these days, you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build them.”

Vote Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson prepares to speak at the group's headquarters in London

You will have been reminded by social media, if not the MSM, that when he was Mayor of London, Boris Johnson told a Labour member of the London Assembly Andrew Dismore to “get stuffed” when he questioned fire service cuts that were on a par with planned manslaughter. On his watch – a phrase purloined from the emergency services and NASA – ten fire stations were closed, and 27 fire engines taken out of service.

 

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Whatever | June 2010

Whatever | The Great Volcano Inconvenience
God help us if there’s a war

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Wanda Jackson, the 74-year-old First Lady of Rockabilly, was stuck in Germany and couldn’t make an interview on my 6 Music show; the comedian Sarah Millican had to cancel an Edinburgh preview I had tickets for at a North London theatre pub because she was unable to fly back from the Melbourne Comedy Festival; and my asthma was slightly aggravated for a few days. Welcome to my Volcano Crisis.

It all started when, in the early hours of Wednesday April 14, Shetland Islanders detected the smell of rotten eggs in the air. By the next day, like an errant child, Britain was “grounded”, as the sulphuric cloud of volcanic ash caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland started pluming across Europe. The Great Volcano Inconvenience had begun, and nothing would ever be the same again …

Until the following Tuesday, when a BA flight from Vancouver touched down at Heathrow, the skies started to refill with metal birds and Sky started to fill with scintillating footage of ordinary people coming through arrivals halls looking a bit inconvenienced. Willie Walsh, union-intolerant CEO of British Airways admitted it would take “weeks” to resume normal service, but promised, “we will make every effort to get our people back home,” as if perhaps he really was airlifting refugees or troops, not running a £8.9bn business for profit.

During the Six Day Inconvenience, 95,000 flights were cancelled and an estimated 150,000 Britons trapped on holiday. I am not without sympathy for those who missed weddings, or lost money, or, in the case of the Kenyan flower farmers, had to sit and watch tonnes of roses bound for our Tesco Metros and BP Connects rotting under the Nairobi sun, but for the majority of us, it was lovely. Not a single plane In the sky for the best part of a week. As Stuart Jeffries hymned in the Guardian as he lay on the dewy grass at Kew amid magnolias and witch hazel, “The sky is filled with good news. One of the world’s busiest flight paths, that normally sullies much of west London with howling jet engines from 6am, is silent.”

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What prelapsarian paradise was this? On the Thursday, ITV suspended all adverts for the 90 minute duration of the first leaders’ election debate, merely adding to this surreal glimpse of a frankly more agreeable world. The word “chaos” reigned. Not actual chaos, just the word. Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was stuck in New York. The Cribs, Delphic and Frightened Rabbit failed to make Coachella in California. Whitney Houston discovered that there is a lower ebb than appearing in the Bravo reality show Being Bobby Brown when she took the ferry from Holyhead in order to make a gig in Dublin. The Iron Man 2 world premiere was switched from the Westfield Shopping Centre in London to a presumably less rubbish Los Angeles. My friend Stuart Maconie, stuck in Venice, switched into travel writer mode and provided Twitter followers with a witty, illustrated commentary on his journey back to Mark Radcliffe by train, via Milan, Zurich and Paris (“Erstfeld station. The Didcot Parkway of the Alps”).

Come Saturday, when constant plane noise over my neck of London usually taints the summer’s first glass of rose on the patio, I’d stopped feeling guilty for enjoying the respite. A hyperventilating media and our glad-handing politicians had combined to turn the ash cloud into a new Dunkirk (“no-fly misery”), with Gordon Brown promising warships and the Daily Mail fortuitously selling World War II In Colour DVDs off the page. We Brits do not have a lot to be proud of these days, but we still have “pluck” and “resilience”, a myth reliably peddled in any self-started crisis. We certainly showed some world-class queuing with bags at Calais and Santander in our darkest hour.

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The clamour to present the Six Day Holiday Extension as some kind of duty-free 9/11 masked the real story: our perverted view of cheap and easy air travel as a basic human right. (Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, one telegenically stranded celeb, was rare in admitting that the experience of having to endure five unplanned days in Mauritius had made him realise that flying is “a privilege”.) I’m not the planet’s most assiduous green but I have read a lot of books on environmental matters, including a couple of particularly terrifying ones on peak oil, and it doesn’t take a genius to foresee a foreseeable future where there’s not actually enough fuel to support our decadent devotion to economic growth and stag weekends in Prague.

The Six Day Chillout – quickly blamed on overreaction by the “health and safety” brigade – was an unprecedented and glorious glimpse of a post-Ryanair world. Like the “marooned” holidaymakers, it was all brought home for me in the words of Samson Lukoba, legal and ethical trading manager at Oserian, a vast floral factory perched on the shores Kenya’s Lake Naivasha: “The British, they want flowers every day, even just for their houses, not necessarily for special occasions.”

This was a special occasion. As if choreographed by James Lovelock, whose Gaia theory it so beautifully illustrated, April’s volcano – or “vilecano” as it was anthropomorphically christened by the silly old Mirror – showed us a world in which we must eat tiny bags of dry roasted peanuts and get deep vein thrombosis at home. And grow our own bloody flowers.

Published in Word magazine, June 2010

Black watch

Disaster struck twice today. First, just over five minutes before the end of our second GRV Collings & Herrin podcast show – which had, admittedly, been a weird one, and was in the process of being killed by my insistence on relating back the previous night’s edition of Celebrity Masterchef – all the lights went out. In fact, the power went out throughout the entire building. Richard and I were lit only by the faint glow of this laptop, and we encouraged the audience to take flash photographs with their phones to illuminate us further. It was very exciting, actually, although the reasons for being plunged into darkness are a little dark and currently impenetrable. Surely the danger and uncertainty and opportunity for accidental groping will make Podcast 123 one of the most memorable ever for the 80 or so who experienced it. Unfortunately, nobody else will ever hear it, as my laptop went wrong after 2 minutes 46 seconds, but worse than that, it looked for all the world like it was still working for the rest of the show. When we got back to the flat – after a quick birthday day with birthday boy Michael Legge and his now-constant theatrical entourage in the Underbelly – I saved the podcast and exported it, but only the first 2.46 had come out. Clearly, this is my fault, as it is my computer, although the only reason we even used my old warhorse was because having both of our laptops on the tin table onstage meant that Richard was quieter than me on the first one. (This wasn’t such a problem, actually, as I hardly said anything, leaving the heavy lifting of insulting and harassing the audience and talking about following through to him.)

Richard continues to live the fantasy that he thinks I am a dick, and the fact that it was my laptop that went wrong and swallowed what might have been an interesting gig sadly serves to reinforce that constant hail of abuse. Because I hopefully said that my laptop would be alright, and it wasn’t, he seems to think I am conspiring to ruin the double act so that I can just continue my arrogant rise to solo stardom. I now get up early so that I can wash everything in the kitchen up and put it all away before he even rises from his self-indulgent slumber. I have been up early enough to put the rubbish out twice, which means we don’t have to risk having the bag torn open by mutant land seagulls by putting it outside the night before. I really tried to fix the fridge door, and Justin Moorhouse, handyman, is my witness, even though it broke again due to reasons beyond my control. Today, I took all the newspapers and recycled them by hand on the Royal Mile. I am trying to be a good double act partner and a good flatmate, but Richard has created a Frankingstein-style monster of disdain and disapproval of me now and cannot back down.

So, two disasters in one day, and one the day before. Surely that’s all the bad juju for this Edinburgh. Let’s hope the GRV has enough hamsters to bring the power back on today, or else Richard and I will be podcasting in the road like street performers, and I fear Mat Ricardo and the clown union would take a dim view of that, as we don’t have a licence.

In more positive news, Fiona Shepherd’s positive, three-star review of Secret Dancing in the Scotsman is now online here.

I went to see Gary Delaney’s fabulous first Edinburgh show Purist last night at the Pleasance. I saw his preview in London, so have heard many of his inventive and dazzling one-liners before (ironically, he missed out my actual favourite one, but meant to do it), but he’s added some visual gags, one of which is a cracker, and these help to break up what is actually quite a demanding style of comedy, in that there’s a laugh, or potential laugh, or groan, every few seconds. Gary’s onstage persona is his offstage persona, and he allows himself to giggle at his favourite jokes, and at the audacious rudeness of some of them, which allows him to get away with material that even Richard Herring might balk from. I won’t quote any of his gags, as he gets enough of that on the internet already, and anyway, if you follow @garydelaney on Twitter, you’ll find that he gives jokes away for free all the time. Blimey it was hot down in that cellar – and Gary sweats as much as I do – but that is the spirit of the Fringe.

I saw Gary with Michael (who was credited with suggesting one of the visual jokes) and Muki, who went off into the theatrical night straight afterwards, while I had a couple of plastic pints with Manchester’s Sali and Craig, whom I’d last seen at Glastonbury ’09, which means we only ever meet at festivals. At least this one was on cobbles. It was a balmy and star-studded night in the Pleasance Courtyard, and we were subsequently joined on our picnic bench by the northern mafia, Justin Moorhouse (who’d valiantly tried to save our podcast but was defeated) and The One Show‘s Jason Manford, who seems very different with stubble, which I suspect he is wearing while he can, before the big new job starts.

Then I trotted off to see Political Animal at the Stand, Andy Zaltzman’s self-explantorily themed mixed midnight stand-up show, featuring, among others, the talented comic songsmith James Sherwood and Paul Sinha, with whom I’d shared a stage at Comedy Countdown. I’ve never seen Paul before, and he is amazing – every line seems so beautifully honed, and when you think you’ve got the measure of a routine, he twists it one last time, and never lets a predictable finish be.

I accidentally ordered a pint of really heavy draft bitter at the Stand. It was noisy in there and the woman behind the bar misheard me, but I was too polite to rectify the error, which was all mine. I am a bit useless. Things keep going wrong. Why?