Home » Backpacking in Thailand » Some Like it Hot – interim musings on fire safety. Plus: Who is this guy, Shakespeare? And: Care in Chaos: where’s the money?

Some Like it Hot – interim musings on fire safety. Plus: Who is this guy, Shakespeare? And: Care in Chaos: where’s the money?

“the fire station officer’s report described the building as a ‘deathtrap’, into which he could not legally order firemen to go…”

Some Like it Hot

Having recently been made homeless, after several years’ helpful experience of hiring myself out between increasingly rare freelance consultancy contracts as a jobbing gardener and house cleaner I was fortunate in 2005 to land a job as the Estate Manager of a large and historic 18th-century country mansion, a Grade One-listed Palladian wedding-cake described by the heritage people as ‘an architectural jewel’.

Scarily illuminated by night, bats flitting through pools of garish yellow floodlighting into the deep black shadows all around, by day the mansion was revealed as a dilapidated Gormenghast, a cheap pattern-book building stuck as the result of a dynastic marriage on top of a probably more interesting and sturdy 17th-century manor house, from where Captain Johnes had mustered the militia to defend the castle against Oliver Cromwell’s men during the English Civil War, before judiciously changing sides.

A succession of eccentric and indigent owners over the years had left the place with a reputation for drug-fuelled raves and unpaid bills. Anything it had once contained of value: furnishings, collections, even fixtures and fittings had long ago been auctioned off, crowbarred out. Yet visitors found it all most enviable, I never understood why.

Infested with bedbugs to the discomfiture of the hotel inspector, who showed me his collection of angry bites but otherwise wrote kindly about us, it had, I think, 19 bedrooms (in theory – the top floor was derelict, making counting difficult). There were nine separate electrical circuits, in some of which nails were being used as fuses, and its water requirements were served by a single, half-inch plastic agricultural pipe that froze solid in winter and then burst, twice flooding the kitchen.

I lived in a sort of semi-furnished apartment at the back, three rooms and a galley (no fridge or cooker provided), on-call 24 hours a day. The pay was minimal, the hours and duties practically infinite. As the only permanent staff for much of the nearly seven years I worked there, in the otherwise empty building, apart from the rare occasions on which there were B&B guests and weekend wedding parties of up to 200 people, I was alone and responsible by night for chasing uninvited intruders out of the house and grounds. Usually they were looking for drugs, or hoping to photograph a ghost.

The new owners lived on the other side of the world and travelled incessantly on business, visiting for perhaps two or three weeks a year. They would arrive in a state of excitement, glad to be ‘home’, then rapidly tire of the limited facilities and tacky local attractions. Not having a clue about listed Georgian buildings and the horrendous repair and maintenance costs they constantly demand, they bought the house on an impulse while on holiday, grandiose but cheap, leaving the seller’s hardly unbiassed agent to commission for them a basic ‘second-gear’ mortgage survey that consisted mostly of small-print exclusion clauses.

What I saw alarmed me.

Still standing… the 270 year-old ‘jewel’ – a potential death-trap.

Beneath the floor of the impressive first-floor gallery was a four-feet high ceiling void that spanned the length of the building with no fire breaks. Through the voids of the disused rooms above ran thick bundles of old electrical cables, whose combined resistance I knew could cause them to heat up, in contact everywhere with piles of wood shavings and materials discarded from abortive attempts at restoration.

The addition of central heating had caused the fine old oak floorboards in the public rooms to shrivel, leaving gaps beneath which a centuries-old accumulation of fluff and dust was visible. The nightmare of a King’s Cross-style smouldering fire resulting from a dropped cigarette seemed inevitable*. Of course there was no sprinkler system: water might damage the historic chipboard furnishings, the crudely faked old masters.

To loud protests from guests and wedding organizers, I immediately banned smoking and naked lights anywhere in the house. It had little effect: people felt that as they were paying to use the facilities, they could do what they liked; especially the outside catering staff I had to bring in when there were too many guests for me to cook for and wash-up after on my own.

The brickwork lining the grand and ‘welcoming log fire’ in the hall was badly eroded. There was no fireback. Sparks were flying everywhere. Further up, where it could not be seen, a collapse had partly blocked the enormous chimney. For £10 extra, wedding organizers could book the fire on a winter’s night; but after the main feature of the house, its gilded rococo ‘music-room’ immediately above the hall filled with smoke one night, setting off the fire alarm, I decided it might be a good idea to stop lighting fires.

That didn’t go down too well either. It’s difficult to get people to think and act in their own best interests where money is involved. I suppose that goes for the world too.

The local fire brigade used to carry out an inspection once a year, bringing their rookie firemen up from town to show them the ropes: the derelict areas, the wiring mess, the grand wooden staircase with the flammable junkroom beneath, just by the main kitchen; where the water supply sometimes was, the decidedly dodgy alarm system, the main emergency escapes – there are seven – and filed a report, on which we were legally supposed to act.

No-one was ever able to find the fire hydrant. It was out there somewhere, beneath the brambles in the overgrown garden. I regularly used to dig it out and put the yellow marker back, until the next tradesman came along and parked his truck on top of it, and it disappeared again under a heap of building rubble. Plan B was to run hoses out and pump water from the lake a quarter of a mile away. It didn’t seem like a very good plan as the lake was in dire peril of silting up entirely.

I first became aware that experts shared my view of the safety of the building when in my second year, the fire station officer’s report concluded that the historic jewel was a ‘deathtrap’ – his word – into which he could not legally order firemen to go, not even to save life. It would, he explained kindly off the record, likely all go up in minutes. Nevertheless, we were permitted to go on using it for room-and-board lettings and public events, as the only alternative to making commercial use of the building was to do what the owners of most similar buildings in Britain have generally done, burn the place down.

The first year’s report I saw had allowed us to open to the public only on condition that certain works were carried out. I conveyed the information to them, only to be told I had to cover the cost myself by letting out rooms and organizing weddings and ‘cultural events’ such as rock festivals before they could spend anything on improvements. Sometimes it was hard to remember I was only the gardener.

Then in October 2006 the rules changed. The fire service was no longer responsible for certifying the safety of public buildings.  Owners and managers were expected to self-certify, any subsequent deaths being on their own responsibility. The safety industry became deregulated. Consultants emerged, mostly retired firemen with a limited grasp of English and £2 million of liability insurance. Firms sprang up to expensively service our fire extinguishers. The annual inspection was showing up more and more faults on the alarm circuits.

I wrote my own risk report and management plan, running to many pages. As it was quite beyond one person to carry out a proper search-and-evacuation, while if possible tackling the fire, it was a little optimistic in places; so to cover my back I engaged a consultant. For £150 his report was perhaps less fulsome, nevertheless it made more recommendations, including the addition of automatically closing fire doors, partitions, a new and fully functioning alarm system, etcetera.

Carrying out his instructions was going to be difficult. You could understand the natural resistance of the heritage people to screwing one-hour fire-resistant cladding to both sides of the original Robert Adam-style moulded internal door facings. Once again I emailed the report to the owners, and once again they ignored it, pleading poverty.

By this time we were getting grief, too, from the electrical contractor. Having rewired one wing of the house we had newly restored, giving me two more bedroom suites to clean, they were now refusing to certify the safety of the wiring in the rest of the house. It seemed like a ploy to screw more money out of the supposedly wealthy owners, a local sport, but I could see they had a point.

Having recently had to upgrade the 18th-century sewerage system under threat of a ‘cease and desist’, no-shit order from the Environment agency, who fancied our guests were polluting the local watercourse – there being no septic tank – the owners were not amused. They were starting to understand why the previous owner had walked away smiling.

Around that time I learned of a court case in which a chainstore had been heavily fined following a fire at their London Oxford Street branch, where the staff hadn’t thought about evacuating the shoppers as there was no proper management plan. No-one was hurt, but the implication of the ruling was that, if you knew there was a problem, you needed to fix it before anyone died.

The sentence could be two years in jail, I warned the owners.

The alarm was frequently going off, usually at three a.m. – a terrifyingly loud, panic-inducing, multitone klaxon that battered the senses. One such night, rousing myself from torpor, hurriedly pulling on clothes, tottering across to the office on the opposite corner of the building to switch off the racket, going upstairs to the unlit top floor, avoiding the many missing floorboards, to find and murder the offending smoke detector – dustfalls set them off – and then back out to the car-park to count the guests milling around in confusion, I found one was missing.

An elderly gentleman, he switched off his hearing aids at night, his daughter told me. Although it would awaken the dead, he hadn’t heard the alarm. That did it. I called our insurance broker and told him the full story: the reports, the wiring, the water supply – the putative dead guest. His reply?

‘I wish you hadn’t told me that’.

I emailed the owners, told them I was closing the house and would refuse any order to keep trading or put on any more events until they got the money together and refurbished the entire estate: house, falling-down outbuildings, dangerous grounds and all. I explained patiently that they were wasting thousands of pounds a year insuring an uninsurable asset. The insurers would never pay out, no matter what, and with no valid insurance and safety certificates the hotel licence was correspondingly useless, we were trading illegally.

My reward was to be downgraded. Having found and briefed the architects, I hung on for three more years, acting the part of the old ‘caretaker’ in my dark and freezing flat while contractors came and went, to the sound of power-saws and jackhammers smashing through historic brickwork.

Finally, as a hotel began to emerge they took away the apartment, that I had decorated and furnished at my own expense, to give themselves more rooms to let. I was paid off, to be replaced by a ‘proper manager’ and a battery of about twenty staff, including an obsequious greeter with an umbrella, something it had not occurred to me to put in the job description, one of my first tasks on being employed having been to write my own. It ran to many pages.

I spent the next eight years looking for another job like it, all over Europe. Although registered with more than a dozen snooty London agencies, I managed by my own efforts to get three interviews; one of which resulted in the offer of an impossible job in a boring part of France looking after an even bigger empty house and estate in even worse condition. On discovering that 95 per cent of the nearby town had been bombed flat by the Royal Air Force during WW2, I turned it down. Eventually I gave up looking and retired.

But at least, in large part thanks to my efforts, that damned old jewel is still standing.

  • In 1987, a lit match dropped on an escalator deep down under the London underground station, King’s Cross, ignited a fire in the oily detritus beneath that smouldered for an hour before bursting out in flames. Thirty-one people died and a hundred more were injured.

x

Who is this guy, Shakespeare?

Evidence of the sheer cretinous-ness of Trump’s shrinking band of true dumbfuck supporters emerged over the weekend, when theaters all over America with the name Shakespeare attached received a barrage of abusive messages, rape and death threats indiscriminately aimed at casts, management and crews.

The Washington Post reports, the cause is apparently one single production in New York of Julius Caesar, its short run in Central Park now ended, which rather daringly had a leading character loosely based on Donald Trump – who, of course, unfortunately has to be assassinated in Act three.

Not having the faintest idea who Shakespeare was, 450-odd years after his death, the dumbfucks have rallied round to protect their abusive and emotionally undeveloped orange avatar against the heinous libel by going after the person who wrote da play, imagining in their drooling, cave-troll-like stupidity that this guy Shakespeare don’t respect the boss and oughta be taught a lesson.

…Shakespeare Dallas (Texas) artistic director Raphael Parry reported the receipt of around 80 messages including threats of rape and death and one suggestion, referencing the fate of Shakespeare’s Caesar, that theater staff should be “sent to Isis to be killed with real knives”.

“We just got slammed,” Parry told the Globe. “It’s pretty amazing the vitriol, the wishing we would die and our family would die. A whole lot of them say that we should burn in hell.” Directors said they were surprised by the threats, which Parry thought were most likely generated by a toxic mix of partisan anger and basic web analytics.” – Washington Post, 19 June.

It is of course beyond the bounds of reason that a diehard Trumpist dumbfuck could appreciate how interpretations of the works of the Bard might differ from production to production, and that (too many. Ed.) directors occasionally like to have a bit of fun with them. Sweet Will, I feel sure, would appreciate the grim humour of the situation more than most. He wrote a lot about rape and death.

In fact, Trump should be pleased, up to a point. Julius was a pretty successful general – ruthlessly ambitious, endlessly demanding of loyalty, he massacred hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen and Germans. Unfortunately he flew a bit too close to the sun back in Rome, politically speaking, where even his best mate thought it better to bump him off than let him become a king.

However, his name and deeds have flourished for over two thousand years, and he has lent his surname to an entire phylum of over-mighty, authoritarian bastards who have made people’s lives a misery down the centuries.

Beat that, Donald.

x

“…it seems inevitable that one day people are going to start wondering where all the money has gone to? “

Care in chaos: where’s the money?

Simon Cowell, Andy Murray… the wealthy entertainers and sportsmen are all jumping on the bandwaggon, assuaging their guilt over the economic inequality that condemns London’s migrant workforce to live and die in crumby tower blocks, by holding fundraisers.

But is plowing yet more money into the melting pot really the answer?

Although we still have no idea how many died – the police put the number at 79 but it is likely to go on rising – we do now at least have an idea of how many persons or family units escaped the fire, the number being about 180.

By day two the public had already donated roughly £2 million, even before poor stilted Theresa May tried to save face by offering £5 million in immediate government support, with a grant of £5,500 per tenant*. That’s almost £40 thousand per tenancy, although it may need to stretch to cover compensation for the families of the dead, and any legal costs of the survivors having to re-establish their claims for work visas when all their paperwork has been destroyed.

Plus there are the free relocation services already being offered, that aren’t being terribly well handled; and the donations in kind, of food, toys and clothing. The public’s generosity has been overwhelming – and that’s the problem.

Mr Cowell’s aim of raising another £5 million, plus whatever our wealthier sports personalities can drum up, will double the money washing into the system, with seemingly no plan or guarantees as to who will receive what. The inevitable lawsuits against the management company and the renovation contractors will in future years also provide further large sums in compensation.

It all seems to me to be dangerously excessive, making superstar beneficiaries out of the Grenfell survivors – those, that is, who have not already melted away into the suburbs, unsure of their legal status – but not helping the thousands more tenants awaiting their fate in similar buildings across the country.

Coming so closely on top of the election, the whole affair was immediately politicised in ‘rich v. poor’ terms, although London has always been a city both of gross inequality and hopeful opportunity. The lack of leadership shown by the council and central government was shameful, but worse, it has left a vacuum that local community groups have had to fill. Such ad hoc arrangements post-disasters have in the past led to much undignified squabbling and resentful chaos.

In months to come, no doubt the media will be pointing fingers at the failure to create any kind of responsible, independent central administration to collate, control, disburse and audit the very large funds that are now growing unaccounted for.

The desire to help may be genuine, but given the disorganized nature of these appeals it seems inevitable that one day people are going to start wondering where all the money has gone to?

 

*Government charity is, as always, backhanded. £500 cash grants are being made, but the balance of £5,000 has to be paid into a bank account. That’s a great way of catching out the illegals.

x

“As temperatures climb in Phoenix, Arizona, more than 40 flights have been cancelled – because it is too hot for the planes to fly. The weather forecast for the US city suggests temperatures could reach 120F (49C) on Tuesday.” – BBC.

Enjoy the end while it lasts…

  • Record 100 deg F. to 120 deg F. heatwave persisting across the southwestern United States. 25 deg F. anomaly over normal June temp. reported in California. 55% of US landmass now ‘droughted’.
  • Tidal flooding along Texas, Alabama, Louisiana coast; high winds and tornadoes, up to 1 ft of rain from Tropical Storm Cindy (see below).
  • Record 95 deg F. heatwave across France, Spain, Portugal. Expected ‘hottest summer on record’.
  • Huge wildfires as reported in Leiria, Beiras province, Portugal. Two thousand firefighters involved. At least 64 dead, others missing. 26,000 hectares of forest destroyed.
  • Fujian province, SE China – still underwater. Northern China: droughted. Heavy storm, flooding hits Beijing, Tangshan. 25 June: rescue workers battle to find 120 missing after landlide buries village in Sichuan province.
  • India: heavy rain and floods in Assam, Manipur.
  • 14 die in floods in Niger, West Africa. Northern Kenya, South Sudan, Somalia, Cape Province: all droughted.
  • Floods in Honduras, Central America; Brazil, Mexico, Chile (again, this time with snowstorms).
  • Floods, landslides in Guatemala kill 11. Tropical Storm Bret trashes Jamaica, Trinidad.
  • 14 June, egg-sized hail fell during storms that brought flooding to the northern Loire region of France. 1 dead.
  • Large temp. anomalies in northern USA, Canada. 78 deg. F. forecast for Fort Simpson, NW Territories.
  • Sudden powerful storm trashes the city of Red Deer, Alberta.
  • Quick check around the ‘permafrosted’ land edge of the Arctic ocean shows 30 deg. C. heatwave in arctic Russia/Siberia.
  • Wildfires… everywhere. Grassland fires over Great Plains area reported to be 300% up on 1980s.
  • Also up 300% since 1980s, extreme storms in the western Sahel area of Africa (UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, April 23)
  • Wildfires started by increasing numbers of lightning strikes ‘contributing to rising CO2’.
  • Tsunami caused by undersea slip kills 4 in Greenland. Possible cause: expected increase in seismic activity as land ‘bounces back’ due to icemelt.
  • Temperatures in some parts of the UK exceeded those in Los Angeles and the Bahamas on Monday (19 Jun) as the hottest day of the year so far gripped the country. In Lancashire, roads were seen melting in the high temperatures. – BBC.

Just in case it’s all over before you read this, for the aliens who arrive too late to save us I also need to report:

  • Potentially a monster storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, over the Yucatan peninsula, where there’s been extensive flooding. The chance of a cluster of powerful storm cells merging together has gone from 60% to 80% since Friday, according to USA Today and others, as the system is beginning to rotate ominously. A second tropical cyclone has formed off Belize, and a third is barrelling across the Atlantic from Africa: ‘an unusual event’ to have even two at the same time so early in the season.
  • An unusually long-lasting swarm of earthquakes in the Yellowstone Park supervolcano caldera over the past few weeks – 173 shocks of up to M4.2 recorded since yesterday alone, 500 since 12 Jan. Helium and sulphur gas emissions growing, large cracks appearing and venting. If it does blow, 28 million people will die within three days and the global economy will take fifty years to recover, if ever. Conspiracy theorists are wondering why the US Geological Survey has stopped reporting it.
  • Italian scientists are also concerned about an ancient supervolcano near Mount Vesuvius, right in the middle of Naples, called Campi Flegrei, that is showing signs of waking up.
  • Russia’s defence ministry has said it will treat any plane from the US-led coalition flying west of the Euphrates river in Syria as a ‘potential target’, after the US military shot down a Syrian air force jet on Sunday. Turkish troops have moved to defend Qatar against aggression by other states in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
  • A two-mile wide asteroid with its own moon avoided hitting the earth last week by just 15 million miles. It’s due back in 200 years. NASA is tracking ten more large near-Earth objects.

Bye, y’all. Love you.

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