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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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.