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.

A burnt out first floor window shows fire damage in a house where five people di
A burnt out first floor window shows fire damage in the house where five people died. Photograph: Getty Images

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.”