25 years ago, when I moved from London, to my provincial French bubble, keeping up with events in the UK was a challenge – the occasional British newspapers that made it down to my corner of small town rural France, would always arrive a couple of days late, and if I wanted to keep up with events on a daily basis, I’d flick on the radio to listen to the BBC World Service – coming through loud and clear with everything happening everywhere in except for that place I used to call home. On a good day, with the wind in the right direction I could occasionally get weak, crackly and erratic reception of the BBC « Home Service » in the modern guise of BBC Radio 4.
Now, I am fully aware and connected to events in London thanks to satellite TV and Internet. I can watch BBC London News over breakfast, knowing that delays on the Central Line, traffic chaos at the « Sun in the Sands » roundabout or roadworks on the M25 or cancelled Woolwich ferries, will have no effect on my journey to work. I like the « nostalgic » ex pat disconnect – a distant and reassuring view from deepest France of life in that place I once called home – and as long as London life trundles on …
Then there are those mornings when you hook up, switch on, tune in, connect from your disconnect and just think out loud with a huge F word on your lips – « this can’t be happening? – Not in London. »
Westminster Bridge, London Bridge, Borough Market – this isn’t happening, I know those places. I’d walk across London Bridge everyday to get to class when I as a student. I’d often go for a few pints in the pubs in and around the Borough on the South bank – starting off at The Anchor and finishing up at the Market Porter before getting my train from London Bridge Station – there’s a big slice of my life around there, including that wet night in February 1989 when my partner and I had our first embrace, leaned up against a lamp post just a few years from the Anchor pub. And now, London, I go as a visitor to see my dearest lifelong friends who still live there.
Innocents mowed down by madmen on the bridges, diners an drinkers hacked to death in Borough market, a policeman stabbed at the gates of Parliament in the shadow of Big Ben – I know that place well, my dad was a parliamentary correspondent for the Reuters news agency – he was always taking us up to Parliament for visits, we’d have a coke in the press bar, we’d have our tea in the Parliamentary canteen, and every Christmas, we’d go to the Christmas party held in the bar normally reserved for Members of Parliament. These are places that were (and are still part of my life.)
I‘ve spent the past few weeks glued to the TV watching every event as it unfolds. French news has taken second place, from the recent Presidential, to this weekend’s parliamentary election in France – both events seem relatively unimportant.
I suppose the first bombshell was last year’s European Referendum result. A slim majority of elderly « Little Englanders » had voted us back into the past – by the time Brexit finally happens, most of them will be dead – and then in recent weeks, the terrorist attacks and now the tragic fire at Grenfell House in West London. All this as Brexit negotiation loom large on the horizon. There is of course no link between Brexit and other tragic events, save one – Britain is in trauma and frankly the Powers-That-Be, cannot cope.
Theresa May’s lack of compassion and action on the Grenfell House fire is shocking, the fact that on a visit to the site of the tragedy, the Prime Minister had to be « evacuated » under police escort to protect her from the anger of residents and survivors is proof that she should have and could have done more and more quickly.
I wanted to draw a parallel with the London Blitz, that period in the early years of World war Two, when German Luftwaffe flew nightly raids over London, trying to bomb the city and Britain into submission. Everyday from September 7th 1940 to May 10th 1941, Londoners lived with the prospect of death as a daily reality.
There are those « heroic » images of the time of Churchill, smoking his cigar and picking his was across the rubble of bombed buildings. There are Pathé newsreels showing the King and Queen visiting the devastated streets of the East End. This week though we haven’t seen similar deeds by Theresa May or her ministers.
The local authorities have also seemed strangely inactive, even non-existent. All support for survivors of the fire has been community and charity based – with financial and matériel donations pouring into the area from ordinary people.
People power or people pulling together in adversity just to survive – that was one of the « legends » of the Blitz – solidarity and self help born in adversity – a kind of collective survival instinct fuelled by anger and defiance.
To be fair to the local council – Kensington and Chelsea – they did wheel out the deputy council leader for the benefit of he nation’s media – an inept, tongue-tied, curly-haired but fresh-faced official looking more like a young graduate than a seasoned politician, unconvincingly reassured viewers that the council were doing « everything we can » to handle the situation.
I would like to add that no one from the company that carried out the refurbishment of Grenfell House has been questioned, and there are some serious questions to be answered, on the refurbishment and the materials used (cladding)
What is clear is that no one in authority is actually Handling anything, people are fending for themselves.
In the terror attacks on London (and let us not forget Manchester) it is clear that the Emergency Services did their best to cope, however all these tragédies prove one thing, the authorities cannot cope, and if (God forbid) there were a serious of major attacks on London or a major disaster, people would be helpless.
They say that a week is a long time in politics. Just a few days ago, Mrs May was striding her way back into 10 Dowing Street, sure and safe in the knowledge that she would be Prime Minister – with a little help from a minority protestant party with a 19th century vision of the world. She was ready to go for Brexit, but now ? I would say , expect the unexpected. The tragic fire at Grenfell House was way off anyone’s radar, and these events in north west London and the ensuing government indifference and inaction – well they are events strong enough to bring the newly elected government down.
What all these tragic events show is that Londoners are all Londoners, regardless of race, colour, creed or origin and they are all pulling together. These tragic events also show that all Londoners regardless of race, creed, colour or origin – new Londoners or old Londoners – they are (we are) all targets. Like our ancestors in the Blitz, death is back on the agenda as a daily reality.
In her official birthday message today, the Queen qualified the last few weeks as « sombre times. » These words from her majesty carry far more weight than Mrs May’s timid words of sympathy ? May I suggest now that Her Majesty backs up words with action and flings a few million pounds the way of Grenfell House.
Finally this « Blitz » comparison does leave one huge question – were the authorities at the time of the London Blitz really able to cope or did London survive thanks to the brave men and women of the emergency services and the solidarity of Londoners and their sheer bloody mindedness ? Certainly the latter.
So, on this warm, and thankfully peaceful afternoon in rural France ; I have spent an hour scribbling away in what I call « Cross Channel gazing » – a sideways look across the water in that land that was once home. So far from the realities of anything in my ex-pat disconnect, until, the day it happens here.
The London Blitz Septembet 7th 1940 to May 10th 1941. An estimated 43,000 dead and 48,000 to 138,000 injured.