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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.