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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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