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.

“Electrics.”

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

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.