Blessay 44: Trembling, not Burning in my Tower


It’s been six days since the evacuation. I lived on the 20th floor of Bray – a tower block on the Chalcot Estates in Camden. I’m trying to make sense of my ‘escape’ without a single flame in sight.

It’s Friday 23rd June 2017 after 11 pm. I am checking my e-mails. A friend says BBC’s Newsnight is reporting that residents of the Chalcot Estate tower blocks are being asked, by the council, to leave their homes. Disconcerted I leave my flat to check things out with my neighbours.

Jackie, a black woman, living in a bedsit, is perplexed. Not having seen her for several years the crisis is creating neighbourly contact. Ray, a cheerful man in his early thirties, appears (I regularly encounter him in the lift, that great social hub of the tower.)

‘What are we going to do?’ I look at Jackie. Then back to Ray. ‘I’m staying put’ I say, quietly determined. Ray’s mother enters, bewildered and suddenly mute, as if she, like us, were dreaming all this up. We stand there, joking, moaning and calmly inactive.

Enter John from the Tenants Association. ‘Have you lot decided to leave?’ he asks. Stay, here, not sure and still deciding are the balls we juggle. ‘Is it compulsory?’ I ask. ‘At the meeting they said it was. Hold on, I’ll ring the Deputy Director.’

John dashes down the fire escape to his flat and landline. Five extra minutes of uncertainty. He returns. ‘The Director says that we should all evacuate.’

I decide to sleep on it. Just before bed, two Camden Council workers knock on my door advising me to leave. ‘We can’t make you but….’

‘I’m not going.’ Saying it three times seals my decision – anyway a mattress in the gym of the leisure centre (called Better) doesn’t promise very much sleep! It’s an hour before I can nod off: images of a stern police force peering through the letter box, locking the door, then opening it to discover the tower’s last refusenik, bombard me.

Next morning, after breakfast, I remind myself this isn’t an absurd dream. On Radio 4 Sajid Javid is being grilled by John Humphries who reminds him of people who’ve been living for over forty years in unsafe buildings. Javid ignores Humphries. I cry out loud to the radio that the renovation of Bray was completed 10 years ago by Gordon Brown’s PFI renovation project just before the economic crash and the grinding austerity measures. And now the neglect of all governments and the effects of de-regulation is being felt. (On the day, after the night, that Grenfell tower became an inferno, it was still pouring out black smoke, that I watched from my living room window, 6 miles away. )

I’m suddenly aware of a strong stench coming from the kitchen. My kitchen bin needs emptying. I tie up the bag. A gentle knock on the door. Three East European council workers (A burly Romanian and two skinny unknowns) ask me if I want any help packing. Their English is not so good so I write my refusal on their form. Now back to tying up the bin bag. Once done I have a shave, pick up some CDs and a book to return to the library.

Descending in the lift I meet the Romanian & co again. He tells me that people in only 7 flats in Bray have decided to stay. Then he gives me a big smile, probably delighted by my declaring that I’ve been to Transylivania and found it very beautiful. I wonder if they have many forest fires? I leave him to drop my rubbish bag in the communal bins, now over flowing with last minute stinking deposits.

Outside Swiss Cottage library and the Leisure Centre swarm the international media, national TV companies and the local press. The smart, sexy looking ones, with smart microphones (The TV hounds) plus all the unglamorous rest clutching notebooks and pens. Cheerful policemen mingle with evacuees swopping stories and and some inevitable accident junkies. Walking back to Bray, I recall that lots of Hammer horror movies, shot at Bray studios, usually ended up in a fierce conflagration.

People are now crisis-crossing my path with their phones.

‘And were things drilled properly to make the holes for the gas?’
‘This is such a mess. It’ll be hard to pin the blame on one person.’
‘I’m trying to book something now’
‘We forgot some spare clothes for the baby.’

More new faces at Bray especially a woman, holding a clipboard, who tells me I have half an hour to pack. She persuades me that it’s only matter of time before the building will be emptied. The image of me being a solitary inhabitant plays on my mind: being checked every day by security staff.  Eiree and unsettling. It makes me think of Charlton Heston, the sole survivor of New York, securing his room in  The Omega Man from the vampires. I decide to decamp to avoid any emergency court order of removal.

I ring my friend Jayne who lives in Catford, South London. She has a large house with a garden and is willing to put me up for a month. I pack some shirts, trousers, underwear, toiletries, a few novels, a cd of Mahler’s 3rd (why?) passport, money, and four plastic bags of fruit and veg. The gas is turned off, electrical appliances are unplugged, save the fridge freezer (No flooding please. Would the cladding survive that?)

I’m pressing the lift button. With my backpack on, daypack in one hand and bags of food (broccoli dangling dangerously out) in the other: feeling split between a ‘refugee’ or ‘escapee’ status.

Downstairs I’m told there’s a fleet of taxi cabs parked by the Leisure Centre. Outside people are still running round with mobiles clammed to their ears. I pass a man who nods sympathetically. He offers to carry my plastic bags. Good. He turns out to be Tom Foot, the deputy editor of The Camden New Journal and he’s holding a small recording device. I don’t mind being interviewed. We arrive at the taxi point to find no welcoming fleet. I remember being told that I will need to get a registration number before I can have transport.

At the leisure centre l’m asked to go downstairs and speak to Melissa, another woman with a clipboard. Dozens of mattresses have been laid out in the sports hall. There are families, council workers seated behind tressel tables, children playing and lots of tied-down balloons. Melissa is on the phone. ‘M & S will have to send us some hot food. These people can’t just live on sandwiches.’ Off the phone, she tells me to go back upstairs and check in at the transport desk.

The still functioning cafe has become a transport depot. Lots of police around and admin staff seated behind desks next to piled up boxes and furniture. I see the transport sign and clamber over any obstacles. A forlorn young guy is searching on his tablet. I ask about a taxi and he directs me to Jim who tells me that I need to go downstairs and be registered. At this point I am hot, tired and poor Tom Foot’s still holding my shopping like some faithful servant. My outraged officious voice takes over. It’s middle class volume raised as I insist in having a taxi. Jim disappears. Three minutes later he’s back saying they can do me right away.

I sit with a black British Red Cross worker filling in a form. I can never remember my post code. Is it NW3 TJ or JT? The interviewer fumbles through forms. It must be absolutely right before we can continue.

Religion? None. (Evacuation isn’t covered as an act of providence!)
Next of kin? Brighton? Why don’t you stay with them? Because Brighton’s too far away.Where does your friend live? Catford. The Red Cross man looks unsure. His eyes seem to say that family ought to come first.

The form’s completed. I show my registration number to the taxi co-ordinator. Tom and I head for the ‘welcoming’ fleet. We arrive to find a large Sky TV van and two cabs. We sit and wait for the driver – scouting for more passengers.

I sit and chat to Tom who today is working unpaid. I discover he’s the son of the late Paul Foot the socialist and author of Red Shelley (A book I’ve read and enjoyed). Paul was the nephew of Michael Foot, once leader of the Labour Party. Tom tells me that he’s just heard that Jeremy Corbyn is at Glastonbury and that he’s reading passages of Shelly’s The Mask of Anarchy. ‘That’s something we were spoon fed by Dad when we were children.’ I tell him that l’m a fiction writer, blogger and  poet. I might write Tom a poem for the New Journal. It’s possible title, ‘Trembling, not burning'(stealing cheekily from poet Stevie Smith.)

The taxi arrives. The driver looks pleased. A cab fare to Catford’s good money for the firm! Seventy five minutes later I stagger into Jayne’s house. First priority is to stuff my food inside her fridge freezer.

Day 1 of a tower block evacuee seriously begins.

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