“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. 

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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