A burnt out first floor window shows fire damage in the house where five people died. Photograph: Getty Images
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Letter from Harlow: Reaching for utopia

After the war, Harlow was supposed to offer east Londoners the chance of a fresh start and a stab at the good life. This month, it became the place where a suspicious fire killed six members of a Muslim family.

1.
Very early on the morning of Monday 15 October, residents on the Barn Mead estate in Harlow, Essex, were woken by screams and by the sound of a man in distress. One woman looked through the window and saw that the three bedroom, end-of-terrace house opposite was on fire and a man whom she recognised as Abdul Shakoor, who is 45 and a hospital doctor, was being restrained by neighbours as he struggled to get back inside the burning building where he lived with his wife and their five children. “My children are in there,” he was shouting, “my children.”

By the time emergency support vehicles arrived, the house was filled with thick, acrid smoke and fiercely ablaze. Dr Shakoor’s wife, Sabah Usmani, who was also a doctor, and three of their children were declared dead at the scene; two other children, both severely burned, were pulled from the house alive and taken to the local Princess Alexandra Hospital, where their father worked as an endocrinologist.

Muneeb, who was nine, died later that day; his younger sister, Maheen, at the age of three the baby of the family, was transferred to the burns unit at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, the county town of Essex.

Dr Shakoor, who is suffering from profound trauma and smoke inhalation, was also moved to Broomfield: his wish was to be as close as possible to his daughter as doctors fought to keep her alive. On the evening of Thursday 18 October, it was announced that Maheen, too, had died. The tragedy was complete.

Essex Police have said that the fire, which started in the downstairs lounge, spread quickly and is “being treated as suspicious”, even though no evidence has been found to suggest that an accelerant was used. Shortly after the fire started at the house that Monday morning, a Ford Focus belonging to another local resident was also set alight in the street nearby. “By the time emergency services arrived the fire [at the house] was intense which implies it had been burning for a while,” Chief Inspector Justin Smith said.

“The car wasn’t burnt out, however. We now need to understand the timings, and how long the car had been alight compared to how long the house had been alight – that is a key point.”

There have been previous incidents of arson on the Barn Mead estate and the police are describing it as “more than a coincidence” that both the house and the car should have been set alight around the same time, if not simultaneously, and within close proximity. Were the Shakoors, who were devout Muslims and of Pakistani origin, the victims of a racist attack? Or was the previous occupant of the house, which the Shakoors had been renting for less than a year, the intended victim as has been suggested? (A friend of the Shakoors, a fellow Muslim named Safia Anwar, told me that the family, who for a period lived in Saudi Arabia, had been looking for a suitable property to buy in the town. They were settled in Harlow, their children attended the local Abbotsweld Primary School, and they wanted to stay on, she said.)

2.
I know the Barn Mead area well. My paternal grandfather used to live on the estate in a modest flat that overlooked a comprehensive school. “All day they’re coming in and out, in and out,” he used to complain of the pupils. From the outside, the flat seemed to be very much as it was when I used to visit him, and it’s just a few hundred yards from where the Shakoors lived. Close to the house they rented, on some local fields, are three recreational football pitches where I sometimes used to play on Sunday mornings as a young boy.

My grandfather moved to Harlow from Forest Gate, on the edges of Epping Forest, a strange, shadowy nowhere zone where the East End thins out and merges into Essex. He was retired, his wife had died, and he was suffering from tinnitus and wanted to be closer to his only child, my father, who, like so many aspirational east Londoners, had moved as a young man to the Essex new town, where land was plentiful and new family houses were abundant and available for rent or purchase. My grandfather stayed on in Harlow long after we left the town in the early Eighties.

Many of those who came to live in Harlow in the years after the war were in one way or another in flight from history – from the inner city, from the cramped Victorian terraced streets of their childhoods, from the bomb sites and ruined buildings – and Harlow offered them a new start, a new life in a centrally planned, socially engineered, semi-rural environment. One of the consequences of growing up in a new town as I did – always so much emphasis on novelty, on newness, on the here and now – was that you felt part of a kind of utopian social-democratic experiment. The state was providing for you and those around you, nearly all of whom were of similar background. It was as if the state had a vision of what the postwar good life should be and somewhere we all fitted into it.

“The town attracted progressives, community-minded people,” Ron Bill, a local historian and Labour Party activist, told me over tea and biscuits when I visited him at home in Harlow this past week. “Frederick Gibberd [the consultant architect planner for the Harlow development] was an example of such a person. That first wave of people who came to the town in the Fifties and Sixties – many of them socialists and communists – they wanted to build something. The trouble is there wasn’t a second wave equal to the first. And their children moved away, as children do.”

Harlow doesn’t, today, feel like the optimistic town it did when I was growing up there in the Seventies, when it had such an excellent infrastructure of new houses, roads, cycle tracks, playing fields and children’s play schemes. Back then, it had an Olympic-sized swimming pool (since closed and demolished), an exceptionally well-regarded multipurpose sports centre (since sold, flattened and replaced with houses), a dry-ski slope (long gone), a skating rink (now abandoned), a velodrome (gone) and an expansive, landscaped town park through which a river flowed (now sadly neglected).

The Labour Party was powerful in the town and for many years controlled the council. The local playhouse was ambitious and sophisticated in the choice of films and plays it chose to show and put on. The large central library was superbly stocked with books and magazines, and it was there that I used to read the New Statesman and the Spectator.

It was a provincial boyhood and I yearned for greater adventure and excitement, but in retrospect – and it took me a long time to understand and accept this – I was fortunate to have lived in Harlow when I did. It offered me everything I needed, apart perhaps from a rigorous academic education; there was no local grammar school and by the mid-to-late Seventies most of the town’s eight comprehensive schools were, in ambition and attainment, becoming more like what Andrew Adonis now calls “secondary modern comprehensives”.

“Yes, some of the failures of Harlow are to do with the schools,” Ron Bill told me. “The larger problem was that the original New Towns Act of 1946 stipulated that the new town could keep its assets – from the industrial estate and the commercial side of the town centre – but this was reversed and the assets of the town went to private business and the Treasury.

“The whole aim of the new town was to give people a better life, to build family homes surrounded by green spaces. We wanted to satisfy the demands and aspirations of people – for a town swimming pool, say, or for a meals-on wheels service. But the swimming pool failed because it wasn’t being maintained properly. The sports centre was sold. There wasn’t the money to mend the ski slope. The rose beds in the town park . . . there wasn’t the funds for maintenance.

“If the industrial estate had funded the town it could have been different. But it was still lovely to be in Harlow; the corporation and council achieved a great deal. I suppose we tried for utopia but didn’t quite reach it.”

When I lived in Harlow, it felt resolutely mono-ethnic and socially narrow; there were no black boys in my year at school, and very few of Hong Kong Chinese or Indian or Pakistani origin. There were, however, several boys at the school who became members of the Inter City Firm, or ICF, the feared, ruthless and racist firm of hardcore West Ham hooligans. The National Front were active and were recruiting in the town for a while, and Ron recalls marching against them. Ultimately they were repulsed.

3.
When I spoke last week to Safia Anwar, who lives close to Barn Mead on the Woodcroft estate in Harlow, about her friends the Shakoors, she said they had been brought together by their children and shared Muslim faith. Like Sabah Usmani, Safia wears the hijab. “I saw the family every day – every day – because our children were at the same school,” she told me, in hesitant English. “They were good people and they had no trouble since they came to the town. They never spoke about any problems. We ourselves have had no problem with racism. Perhaps a little bit at the school, some of the children say things to my children . . . but this [the fire] cannot be racism.”

She paused and looked at me sadly. “My children have been asking about their friends – when are they coming back? They think the children will be back when they are better. They don’t imagine what is death.”

Woodcroft, Willowfield, Old Orchard, Five Acres: the names of what were once council or corporation estates surrounding Barn Mead are redolent of a pastoral idyll, or at least of the rural lands that were obliterated when the new town came. The actual estates, transformed by Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme, are perhaps shabbier than I remember and many of the houses need painting and care, but the streets are clean and when I visited council workers in yellow jackets were out sweeping the roads and collecting litter. In Barn Mead a mobile police station had been set up adjacent to the Shakoors’ fire-blackened house and search officers from across the county were fastidiously going about their business, knocking on doors, looking in bins and black rubbish sacks.

“We knew from day one that this could be a lengthy investigation and at this point there are no definitive answers or explanations,” said Chief Inspector Smith. “However, we are putting a huge amount of resources into this investigation. Never in my 24 years of service have we seen this level of resources – it is unprecedented.”

4.
A house fire and suspicions of a racist attack on the estate where my grandfather once lived were what brought me back to Harlow and all the memories it stirs, back to Ron Bill’s nearlyutopia. The morning of my return I parked my car outside my grandfather’s old flat and walked around streets that, even after all these years of absence, seemed so familiar. The school he used to complain about has since been renamed and relocated, and its former classrooms and offices are desolate, fenced in and boarded up. (The school was recently featured in the Channel 4 reality series Educating Essex, the title suggesting that this large and diverse county, stretching from the rural Suffolk borderlands that Constable painted to the edges of London’s East End, is a monoculture.) The local pub, the Archers Dart at Coppice Hatch, where my grandfather bought an occasional pint, was semi-derelict, its doors and windows also boarded up. These unused buildings together with the presence of so many police on the streets gave Barn Mead the feel of an estate under siege.

5.
I eventually left later that morning, feeling pretty despondent and desperately hoping that little Maheen would pull through. The next evening, I heard that she had not.

The funerals of Dr Usmani and her five children were held on Wednesday 24 October at the Harlow Islamic Centre, by which time Essex Police were no closer to solving the mystery of the house fire.

“My children,” Safia Anwar had said, “have been asking about their friends – when are they coming back? They think the children will be back when they are better. They don’t imagine what is death.”

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten