London's burning: a London fire engine. Photo: Getty
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Suzanne Moore: The fish fingers were in flames – then the fire became uncontrollable

Suzanne Moore’s weekly column, Telling Tales. 

There is no smoke without fire. And there is always more smoke than fire. I know that now, having burned down most of my flat.

It was long ago but I lived then very much as I do now: talking on the phone, washing my hair, writing an article about whether feminists should shave or some such, cooking fish fingers under the grill. The modern word for this is “multitasking” and there are less polite words, I am sure.

My children were at school. My friend on the phone was talking, of all things, about the stupid fire drills she was having to do at work, when I smelled something. The fish fingers were on fire. Then the whole grill was on fire. I tried to smother it. I knew not to put water on fat. Flames were leaping up; then, in a millisecond, that thing happened. Fire goes from being something you think you can control to something you know you can’t. The smoke becomes almost solid.

Still in a dressing gown, with a towel on my head, I started choking but rushed out and banged on Ray’s door. Ray was the caretaker who lived next door, who was undisturbed by the explosions I could now hear.

“Get the fire extinguishers,” I screamed. We did.

It was a council flat. The extinguishers were all empty.

“Don’t worry,” said Ray, rushing into my bedroom and picking  up my duvet. He then manfully ran into the heat and threw it in, making a bad situation worse.

By now, a crowd had gathered outside. “Well, that one’s gone, hasn’t it?” said an old lady gleefully.

“Who lived there?” asked a bystander.

“Me,” I said sobbing.

I was thinking, for some reason, about the hand-painted duvet cover my friend had made.

When the firemen came, they crawled in under the smoke to smash out any windows that hadn’t blown.

“Have you got any vodka, love?” said one of them. “Go have one.”

Ray gave me a drink. The smoke was in my hair. “No one is hurt,” he kept saying.

Everything was black. Everything was gone. The fridge and washing machine  had melted into shapes from a Dalí painting.

“Was it my fault?” I kept asking.

“Second-hand cooker, Miss?”

Well, of course it was. Everything I owned was.


Did he say that to me to make me feel better?

All I took was some lipstick to put on my face, which was now a smear of ash and tears.

My children and I were now homeless. I was given a leaflet  about fire risks in the home.

Even now in restaurants when candles are too close, I feel the dread and move them away. Waiters ask, “Is everything all right?”

Once you know about fire, it never is. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.