“There had been an ‘incident’”: On losing your home in a fire

Oh, god. Image: Benjamin Mercer.

When, in December of last year, a drunk Brazilian girl cycled into my houseboat and fell in the canal, I got to play hero. I was getting ready for bed when I heard a bang, then a splash. Neither of these sounds are unusual to those of us who live on London’s canals, but I thought I’d better take a look.

And there she was, being helped out of the water by a well-dressed German. I took charge, and brought her aboard, lighting a fire, brewing a coffee, filling a hot water bottle and sourcing an ill-fitting change of clothes. Later I walked her back to her place of work, then had to leave abruptly when her boyfriend, who suspected malfeasance on my part, arrived unexpectedly.

The next day I rescued her bicycle from the canal and returned it, and some time afterwards was rewarded by a package containing flowers, exotic teas, cheeses and crackers, and suchlike.

Now it’s my turn to be the victim, and in turn make heroes of others. Whilst at work on the evening of Saturday 9 April, I received a text from one of London’s excellent canal rangers. There’d been “an incident”, he said. I called him, and was told my boat had caught fire. I had in mind some damaging but relatively minor thing.

Not so. At the time of writing, my boat – my home – rests at the bottom of the canal. I was sent a picture of the blaze – no small thing, this fire. Vikings could not have wished for better.

Everything is gone. The boat is gutted. All I own is ash. Priam could at least watch Troy burn and think, “Had I done otherwise, then perhaps…” I was stranded miles away, knowing not the time, never mind the cause, of my home’s destruction.

I am indebted, as I will always be, to my dearest friend, for getting me through the next hours. We had been due to sail to Canning Town on Monday. Last time we sailed with wine in hand, Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture and Ride of the Valkyries blaring from our speakers. (“Among the more cultured perambulations a denizen of Mile End is likely to make,” as he put it.)

From the best of times to the worst of times: he found me slumped on the floor, a bit of a wreck; though I retained sufficiently English understatedness to begin by saying, “Monday’s off.”

He has seen me through other disasters and is seeing me through this one. Odd though it might be thought, considering what I’ve just lost, my most immediate regret is how difficult it is to know me.

What remains. Image: Benjamin Mercer.

It is hard to find the words to describe this experience, perhaps – probably – because I’ve not yet come to terms with it. Others might have lost more. You don’t live on a boat if you desire convenience. Except where alcohol is concerned, I am by nature frugal. Small homes – and my boat certainly qualifies as such – demand small belongings.

I owned little, yet just about everything I did own is lost. Clothes can be replaced, of course. So too can books, though not completely: many of mine were difficult to purchase, and a good deal contained annotations. Aldous Huxley possessed a vast library, and many of his books were annotated. He didn’t live long after they were lost to a fire.

And many of mine were given to me by those I hold most dear. These are the hardest of losses; along with my notebooks, one of which contained my history as an (aspiring) poet, and one or two more the beginnings of novels. Some of this was backed up, but the digital depository is inevitably incomplete, and what is gone is more poignant for its loss.

The words ‘purgation’ and ‘purgatory’ share a root, yet I find I am living by their now-separate definitions. The loss of a past life is in many sense a purifying experience; the boat was not what it might have been, and the prospect of a new one, or of bringing something new out of the ashes, is itself the prospect of possibility. (My friend suggests I name the next incarnation ‘The Phoenix’, which is obvious but apt.) The poems and the novels can take on a new life.

But the unfortunate business of bureaucracy and the real has me stranded in purgatory, a seemingly eternal wait. Nothing is known of the cause of the fire. The insurance has not been, and is not guaranteed to be, paid out.

As yet, the only sure consequences of my inferno are ecological and economic. The subsequent oil spill has alarmed environmentalists, and also forced the closure of Limehouse Marina’s commercial lock, at the cost of many thousands of pounds of business. I have inadvertently done more damage to capitalism than the most fervent Momentum supporter. (This is not my fault: The Canal & River Trust was too slow to set out booms.)

But my new status as victim has brought forth innumerable Heroes. Besides my friends, I am indebted now to more people than I can name; people, indeed, who I could not name, they being strangers to me. Our lack of acquaintance makes their kindness more remarkable.

Members of the London Boards Facebook group have provided me enormous solace and consolation. I had always been dimly aware of the tight-knit community I had joined when I first set foot aboard my boat, The Highlander, but the loyalty of that community still took me by surprise.

Widespread dissatisfaction with the Canal & River Trust tightens the bonds between the community’s members, and those bonds produce dissatisfaction in turn. Boaters know how the waterways should be run and generally think they’d be best at running them. By and large they are right, and the campaign to renationalise the waterways is not without merit.

Consequently they – we – rally around when a fellow boater is beset by tragedy. Philip Pullman’s depiction of the Gyptians in Northern Lights is far from fantasy. Thus, when they learned of my inferno (and it was through one of them that I first learnt of it), I was beset by offers, from total strangers, of accommodation, moral support, help with salvage, and everything else besides. (“Puppy cuddles” included, I think.)

One or two were more concerned about the local swans, and I have some sympathy. But the rest have been unfailing in their support, and I lack the words to sufficiently express my gratitude to them.

Auden rightly scorned “The strength of collective man.” There is an empty tyranny about it, which is why vague talk of ‘The Big Society’ is everywhere and always vacuous. Its stated ambition, that we should all look out and stand up for each other, is of course a good one, but it too often means its opposite: the state, which has done so much to destroy society, now stepping back from the consequences it has wrought.

This is why kindness is so often so extraordinary: it is not ‘The Big Society’ but little communities which embody the ideal.

Which is how, though my home is now a wreck and all my belongings lost, I still have a home and I still belong; thanks to those, principally of the London Boaters, who have availed me. 


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.