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.

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.)

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.

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.”

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.

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

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood