I recently retired from the London Fire Brigade after 31 years’ service. I attended the Grenfell Tower fire as part of a relief crew on the second day. Andrew O’Hagan discusses the use of the ‘Stay Put’ policy on the night of the fire, with a strong implication that it wasn’t abandoned quickly enough (LRB, 7 June).
‘Stay Put’ is the only policy that can possibly work in the majority of residential high-rise buildings. But it is based on the assumption that the fire will be contained in a single flat or compartmentalised part of the building. Should residents evacuate in the initial stages of a fire, opening all the doors as they go, that would risk the spread of fire and smoke to other floors, as well as creating the potential for crush injuries and hampering the fire crews’ access to the fire floor. This is the reason communal alarms are generally prohibited; individual alarms are fitted to flats because you are only supposed to evacuate the flat affected. If we were to move away from this policy we would increase the likelihood that disaster would be caused instead by encouraging people to evacuate in the initial stages of the fire.
This is why compartmentalisation, building regulations, safety systems, firefighting facilities, maintenance and inspections are so important. They are designed to contain problems when just one or two things go wrong. A catastrophic failure, especially in compartmentalisation, when multiple things go wrong at the same time, to the extent and at the speed they did at Grenfell, is a different situation entirely. Once the lobbies, corridors and the lone stairway were compromised, the task became almost impossible.
The advice given to residents in such circumstances, many of them elderly, or with young children or with mobility issues, would depend on many variables. At any given point during the fire, residents may be in a part of the building that is safe for now but soon won’t be, and fire crews will be trying to reach them and bring them down safely. Alternatively, phone operators and officers may determine that the fire crews will not reach those residents in time, in which case they may advise people to evacuate, only for them to enter several flights of stairs at extreme temperatures, filled with thick black smoke and clogged with hose, equipment and casualties. This poses an almost impossible dilemma/choice involving competing hazards, probabilities and unknowns. The notion that Grenfell could have been evacuated quickly, easily and without the potential for large-scale loss of life is wishful thinking.
There is a deep, wide and systemic problem with building regulations, testing standards, building control, fire safety legislation and maintenance and inspection programmes. There are hundreds of residential blocks to consider, run by dozens of councils, and the problem has developed over twenty years under governments of all political persuasions. It isn’t just a matter of high-rise buildings, of flammable cladding or windows. To focus exclusively on one council or government, specific contractors or suppliers, one socio-economic or any other group, the fire brigade’s response or even this particular building or fire, misses the much bigger underlying problem. That doesn’t mean individuals or organisations should escape blame. But merely to place the blame and continue ignoring the real problem would be a grave mistake.
Andrew O’Hagan quotes the following from my book Big Capital: ‘The zeal with which so many councils are embracing the demolition and rebuild agenda means a rapid reshaping of London is underway … The combination of global capital, government policies designed to kill off social housing and failures in housing benefit are configuring the city.’ There is a mistake here – in the book I say ‘reconfiguring’ – but no matter. ‘All of this is true,’ O’Hagan says, ‘and all of it is crucial, and I wonder whether it has a defining part to play in our understanding of the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath.’ Yet he immediately goes on to trivialise my argument by asking: ‘But does this amount to a case for mass murder?’ (He is referring here to the view he attributes to Grenfell activists that the ‘privileged white men’ of the Kensington and Chelsea Council ‘were murdering ordinary people’.)
O’Hagan is creating a false opposition. At issue here is not simply who has direct responsibility for the Grenfell Tower fire but the way in which councils are operating to undermine the democratic process in many parts of London and the UK, not just in Kensington and Chelsea. And while O’Hagan appears to concede that the democratic deficit played a role in fuelling the anger, his overriding argument is that the longstanding hatred of local Tories and this particular council was behind the local response, rather than the exclusion from the political process that many people feel.
In Section 7 of the piece (headed ‘The Facts’ in the online version), O’Hagan continues his defence of the council, and in particular of Rock Feilding-Mellen, Kensington’s former cabinet member for housing, property and regeneration. He is contemptuous of activists and finds ‘nothing to support the view that these councillors were corrupt or were trying to harm residents’. But this is another false opposition. Exclusion from the democratic process is not about actual corruption but the opaque processes that make it possible for councils, developers and lobbyists to make unpopular decisions without public participation. One individual is singled out for alleging that Feilding-Mellen was ‘close friends’ with the former Haringey Council leader Clare Kober, and that their ‘thoughts, schemes and manipulations’ created Grenfell. O’Hagan dismisses the claim for lack of evidence. But a look through information in the public domain quickly reveals that the two shared the same social milieu, courtesy of the lobbying firm Terrapin Communications, which treated both to frequent lunches and dinners. This is not evidence of friendship between Feilding-Mellen and Kober, but the existence of such social events, where deals are done behind closed doors, seems to me a relevant fact in understanding the reconfiguring of the city which is angering so many Londoners. Another fact that O’Hagan does not mention is that Feilding-Mellen has a widely reported, controversial history as a property developer in Scotland and Norfolk, in which his failure to listen to the views of local residents has featured repeatedly. It is this failure to listen, as much as the fact that he is a Tory with an eccentric aristocratic background and a double-barrelled surname, which has made him, in O’Hagan’s words, a ‘modern housing villain’.
University of East London, E16
Purges and Paranoia
‘To appreciate what has happened in Turkey requires historical perspective,’ Ella George writes, introducing her succinct and deeply disturbing overview of recent events (LRB, 24 May). Yet these events amount to such an egregious assault on human rights that the only valid response is outrage. The real and urgent question is not how we got here but why the international community is, as so often is the case, letting Erdoğan get away with it.
‘It was only as Mussolini came more and more under the influence of Hitler in the mid-1930s,’ Steven Shapin writes, ‘that the serious persecution of Italian Jews began’ (LRB, 24 May). As Michele Sarfatti demonstrates in his book La Shoah in Italia: la persecuzione degli ebrei sotto il fascismo (2005), the regime made an autonomous decision to persecute the Italian Jewish population, motivated by Italy’s domestic political situation. Jewish organisations had resisted fascistizzazione, and even those Jews who had been most supportive of the regime in the 1920s were unlikely to support Mussolini as his foreign policy turned to an alliance with Hitler’s Germany.
The persecution of Italy’s Jews was thus not undertaken as a means to other political ends: anti-Jewishness (antiebraismo) was an end in itself. The goal was, through legislation and propaganda, to eliminate Jews from Italian society and the Italian nation, and thereby to make that society and nation more thoroughly and proudly Aryan. Jews were to be progressively eliminated from every social sphere (schools and universities, government, civil service, medicine, media, commerce etc). Unlike in Germany, this would be done without street brawls and synagogue bombings. Yet it was achieved nevertheless, and Italians were by and large complicit.
On the final day of 1936, Mussolini’s unsigned article ‘Il troppo storpia’ appeared in the regime mouthpiece Il popolo d’Italia. Here he declared that Jews provoked antisemitism because they were too (demonstrably) Jewish, making a chilling play on the common proverb ‘il troppo stroppia’, which can be loosely translated as ‘too much of a good thing’. Mussolini instead uses a rare variant of the proverb; the verb storpiare, which means ‘to cripple, to maim’ and derives from the Latin turpis (‘ugly’), describes not a good thing gone bad, but an ugly, distorted excess – namely, the excess(ive) Jew.
Sarfatti presents the years between 1938 and 1943 as the period of persecution of Jewish rights, and the remainder of the war – when Germany occupied northern Italy – as the period of persecution of Jewish lives. But Mussolini was his own man, and his regime persecuted Italian Jews of its own volition.
That was the year that was
In the mid-1960s, M.S. Arnoni, an Auschwitz survivor, published in his monthly magazine of news and opinion, A Minority of One, the complete text of the 1954 Geneva Agreement which ended the French war in Indochina. By its terms, Vietnam would, for two years, be divided into two administrative zones – the term ‘nation-states’ was carefully avoided – and the division was to end with a countrywide election resulting in a single national government. During the two years, there would be free movement of persons across the temporary border, and a postal service too. But the election never took place, since, as Eisenhower admitted, the American-backed government in the South would have lost heavily. The subsequent years did not bring the ‘uneasy peace’ that Patrick Renshaw imagines, but fierce repression of the nationalists in the South, with portable guillotines travelling from town to town (Letters, 7 June). In New York, I heard of helicopters firing on peasant villages – this was around 1959 – but I remained incredulous: I refused to believe that our government would engage in mass killing.
The propaganda line in the quality press – the New York Times – was and still is that communist guerrillas, infiltrating from the North, had attacked the legitimate government of the Republic of Vietnam, and that the US had entered the fight to prevent aggression. Each opponent of the war had his own sudden burst of enlightenment. As well as Arnoni’s reprinting of the Geneva Agreement, I remember I.F. Stone’s newsletter for its patient exposure of government lies. So fifty years later, I don’t need the internet or reference books or a visit to the library to write this letter, even though these days I often can’t remember whether I brushed my teeth in the morning. The text of the agreement – a brief one, perhaps a thousand words – was burned in my consciousness.
Many thanks to Tariq Ali (LRB, 24 May). I hadn’t seen an example of zeugma for ages: ‘In the December 1942 wedding photograph my father was wearing a cheeky smile and a British army uniform.’
What to Do with a Quarter-Acre
Hera Lindsay Bird must be pulling Duncan McLean’s leg (LRB, 7 June). Young as she is, she must know of New Zealand’s old Labour Day custom of digging a hole in one’s back garden. That’s clearly the origin of Frank Sargeson’s story ‘The Hole that Jack Dug’, and of the poem about her aunt.
McLean’s use of the term ‘gentrification’ to describe the development of Takapuna in Sargeson’s time is misleading. The suburb that grew up around Sargeson’s bach was mainly bungalows built on quarter-acre sections. There was nothing bohemian about Sargeson’s garden. Most of these bungalows would have had large vegetable gardens: that’s what you did with a quarter-acre section.
Sargeson went to the same secondary school as I did. Hamilton Boys’ High School, as it had become by the 1960s (it was co-ed in Sargeson’s day), was proud of the All Blacks it produced but never acknowledged its distinguished literary old boy. Hera Lindsay Bird is not the first to have ignored him.
Eleanor Birne writes that Tacita Dean ‘moved to Los Angeles to be close to the only labs in the world still equipped to preserve 16mm archive’ (LRB, 7 June). In fact there are a number of labs around the world that do preservation work, including, for example, Colorlab in Maryland, 2500 miles from Hollywood. Dean has consistently underplayed the existence of film laboratories, of which there are still several in operation offering 16mm printing and preservation. It doesn’t help the survival of these labs, who do great work, to pretend they don’t exist. It’s also worth mentioning that there are at least thirty labs worldwide that are run by and for artists; there has been a resurgence of Super 8, 16mm and 35mm film-making, though the kind of work being done is often rough and ‘artisanal’ and hence antithetical to Dean’s aesthetic.
University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury
Do we have a policy?
Like Conrad Teixeira, when I subscribed to the LRB last year I too noticed the untranslated French (Letters, 10 May). At first, I was amused by what seemed to me a holdover from a certain style of English erudition. But then I decided to take it as an invitation to learn French. I will never achieve fluency, or anything near it, even though according to Duolingo I’m 68 per cent of the way there. I’ve studied it for months now (I take the French lessons for Spanish speakers, to practise my extremely incomplete Spanish knowledge at the same time), and can just about make out the French news tweets that float by my timeline. In addition, Alice Spawls’s majestic essay on the Brontës (LRB, 16 November 2017) and a recommendation from, of all places, Gloria Steinem’s book of 1992 on self-esteem, Revolution from Within, encouraged me finally to read Jane Eyre, and I could follow little Adèle’s patter. Now, rather than skipping over the French-language passages I encounter, I at least attempt to engage with them.
Unfair to Iceland
Ardis Butterfield finds it ‘strange’ to write the literary history of late medieval Iceland, when ‘nothing of late 14th-century literature … survives in modern Iceland’ (LRB, 26 April). Nothing, that is, except Flateyjarbók, the most sumptuous of all saga manuscripts, written c.1387-94 and containing a panoramic history of the early kings of Norway, interwoven with sagas and tales of Icelandic poets, farmers and the walking dead. And the iconic Möðruvallabók, written a generation or two earlier, the oldest surviving collection of family sagas and the source text for some of Penguin Classics’ best-loved Icelandic titles.
There are plenty of other, smaller literary manuscripts from this period besides these. It won’t do to dismiss them as ‘a few books that recycle 12th and 13th-century writings’ unless we’re to see Malory’s Morte d’Arthur as a mere recycling of older romances. The only thing ‘strange’ about 14th-century Icelandic literature is not the fact that a lot of it survives only in later copies (that’s the norm for most medieval literature), but just how much of it, and of such high quality, was produced by a tiny rural society in the era of the Black Death. When Flateyjarbók was finally shipped home to Iceland in 1971 after years of negotiation with the Danish government, it was accompanied by a full military escort and a large crowd awaited its arrival. That’s a lot of trouble to take for a non-existent literature.
University of Aberdeen
Terry Eagleton describes the family from which George Bernard Shaw is descended as a ‘decayed branch of the Protestant Ascendancy’ (LRB, 21 June). As a member of that branch, I recognise that it is accurate to say that many members of my father’s family, the Tyrrells, belonged to the Protestant Ascendancy, but I must take issue with that word ‘decayed’. My father, Anthony Tyrrell Hanson, an eminent theologian, was the son of Geraldine Tyrrell (later Lady Hanson), who was, as I understand it, a cousin of Shaw. Geraldine was the daughter of Robert Yelverton Tyrrell, the classical scholar who taught Oscar Wilde at Trinity College Dublin and remained lifelong friends with him. My grandmother corresponded with Shaw on a frequent basis and his work was a huge influence on my father, who insisted we read Shaw’s works as a family on holidays in Ireland. I am just coming to the end of a 34-year career in the NHS and I have two sons and one daughter. I can’t speak for other branches of the family, but this one is flourishing.
Andrew Tyrrell Hanson