“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. 


“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  

For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.