Grenfell Tower: The London Fire

I watched this incident with more than usual interest. I worked in the ambulance station around the corner from this building, for more than twenty years. I have been inside on numerous occasions, to deal with the many 999 calls generated by such housing density in one place.

The area is North Kensington, close to better-known parts like Notting Hill, Holland Park, and Portobello Road, all accessed with an easy walk. Not far from that tower block, you will find houses that would cost millions to buy, alongside similar tower blocks in the same street. So, it is an area of great financial inequality, as well as one of the most racially diverse in London.

Blocks like Grenfell Tower once seemed to be the answer to clearing slums, and providing basic housing for ordinary working people and their families. After all, high-rise living is just as popular with the rich, who are willing to pay small fortunes for better-quality apartments in very tall blocks all over the city. But these blocks were not the same as those destined for the wealthy. They were built with costs in mind; rooms just big enough, the minimum level of outside space around them, inadequate car-parking, and a visible lack of safety features.

Inside, there were lifts big enough to take a coffin when necessary, but only a few people at a time. They didn’t always work either, which left the elderly and infirm trapped on higher floors, unable to manage the stairs. There was no ornamentation, no art on the walls, and no concierge to supervise the huge block. Much later, they became little more than a ‘dumping ground’ for the local council to house refugees, immigrants, and people discharged from mental health institutions. Inside the poorest standard of accommodation available, they placed the poorest and most vulnerable people.

Even during the much-vaunted refurbishment of this block, corners were cut, and costs saved. Warnings were ignored, alongside the pleas of those living there. It was never a question of if something like this was going to happen, rather than how soon it would. Since this tragedy, many questions are being asked, and the blame game has started in earnest. The council officials seek to exclude themselves from blame, by stating that they gave over the running of this property to a private company. The government ministers concerned seek to exclude themselves from blame, by putting the emphasis on the council itself. It has emerged that there was no contingency plan in place, to deal with such an event. It has also been stated that adequate fire precautions would have been ‘too expensive’. There is even the chilling likelihood that the number of fatalities has been deliberately played down, as many of the occupants do not have the language skills necessary to state their concerns.

Can you just imagine if this had happened in a luxury apartment block overlooking the river? Or maybe inside an iconic building, like The Shard? What if all those killed and terribly injured had been rich and influential people? Would they have had to try to occupy the council offices to get answers to their questions, or to arrange temporary accommodation? Those are rhetorical questions of course, and we all know the answers.

Poor and ordinary lives don’t matter. It’s as simple as that.

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The UK Election: The Post-Mortem

So what are we to make of our election results?

Theresa May made some wrong moves, and threw away one of the biggest leads in decades.

The tax on property, to allow for social care in later life.
Big mistake.

Austerity policies.
Big mistake.

Not attending any televised debates.
Big mistake.

Underestimating the UK electorate.
Big mistake.

What about Jeremy Corbyn, written off, before the election?

He came across as sincere and passionate.
Huge positive.

He said things that people wanted to hear.
Huge positive.

He attracted the votes from disillusioned elderly people, and first-time young voters.
Huge positive.

Many people believed his Socialist rhetoric.
Amazingly positive.

He secured his position as leader of the opposition Labour Party.
Massive positive.

UKIP all but disappeared from the political scene, and their leader resigned. So much for the far right, in UK politics.

The Liberals had some gains, but nothing remotely significant.
Situation normal for them, after the fuss has died down.

Scotland rejected the second independence referendum, and the Nationalist path, with a loss of 30% of Nationalist seats.

Theresa May is unlikely to ride out this storm, and almost certain to either resign, or be ousted.

The knives are out in Westminster, and the sides are forming. She is in neither camp.

Corbyn cannot form a government, but a second election in the short term looks very likely.

That was one hell of a day, in British politics!

UK Terror attacks: The difficult questions

Last night, there was another terrorist attack on the streets of London. This follows the Manchester bombing, and the Westminster attack before that.

The man responsible for the Westminster attack was described as being, ‘known to the security services’.
The man responsible for the Manchester bomb was described as being, ‘known to the security services’.

Although it is too early to speculate at the moment, there is a good chance that the men responsible for last night’s attack will be described as being, ‘known to the security services’.

The head of the counter-terrorism command has stated that it takes thirty officers to maintain constant surveillance on one individual. There are currently some 20,000 individuals in the UK who are described as ‘Subjects of Interest’, regarding terrorism. Keeping tabs on all of these is obviously logistically impossible. So, the attacks will continue, as those responsible for trying to stop them are too few in number to make it possible to stop them all.

Should radicalised Islamist citizens be allowed to continue to spread their words of hate, encourage others to kill innocent people, and go about their business unmolested?
Do we have to wait for them to kill and injure large numbers of people before bringing them to justice for conspiracy in those events? It doesn’t relate to the individuals who carry them out, as they want to die, either by being shot by police, or blowing themselves up.

But those carrying out the attacks are only a small part of a huge organisation of terrorists operating in the UK. Many are well-known to the authorities, but are still allowed to travel freely between the UK and countries like Syria and Libya. Some receive benefit payments as they do not work, and others live normal lives with no apparent source of income. Remote surveillance of their computers, emails, mobile phones, and social media use shows that they are conspiring with others to promote terrorism, and to try to get men to carry out these suicidal attacks on innocent members of the public.

Do these people still deserve their rights in modern Britain? Should free speech and freedom of movement extend to them? Should they be issued with passports, and allowed to travel? Should they be allowed to hire vehicles to use to run over and kill people?

I have no definite answers. But I am beginning to believe that if these attacks are to be stopped, or at least reduced in number, we are going to have to seriously re-examine the tolerance in our society that allows them to happen.
And it is a dark day when I feel compelled to write such words.

Corbyn: Behind those slurs

In the aftermath of the Manchester suicide bombing, there was an agreed pause in electioneering. As soon as it started again, everyone was soon attacking Jeremy Corbyn, for making a supposedly insensitive statement about why Britain is one of the countries targeted by terrorists. Given the high level of emotions concerning the terrible attack, loss of life, and many still requiring treatment, it might be understandable to condemn the Labour leader for his speech. He was accused of being thoughtless, and that his speech was poorly timed too. When that failed to get enough backlash, they dragged out the old accusations that he supported the IRA, decades ago.

But let’s look at the substance of what he said, and forget the heated atmosphere for a moment. He was not blaming British troops, as has been alleged, rather the policies of this country in slavishly supporting America, and becoming involved in foreign wars against Muslim countries. Many of his own colleagues were quick to attack him, and the opposition parties queued up to have their say about him too. I am not in his party, and I doubt he will win in June. But what he said was true.

If you send the armed forces of your country thousands of miles, to become involved in proxy wars that are not your business, you can expect a backlash at home. France, Russia, Britain, and many other countries who have chosen to involve themselves in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen have seen the repercussions of their decisions arrive on the streets of major European cities, and in some US states too. If, as it is claimed, the Jihadists and militants seek to destroy the western way of life, then why are there no attacks in Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Finland, Slovenia, and so many other countries I could list here? You don’t have to be an expert strategist to work out that only those nations happy to become embroiled in the wars in troubled lands are those being attacked in return.

And it doesn’t end with actually sending troops. Supporting countries like Saudi Arabia in their wars against their old and new enemies, or taking sides in favour of Sunni or Shiite against the other, is little different to being physically involved in the fighting. It seems to me that Corbyn was not only correct in his assertion that we must stop fighting, and start talking, but that his timing was actually just right, following a painful reminder of the consequences of not doing so.

Of course, a cynical person might also see that the so-called ‘unelectable’ socialist was doing quite well in the polls recently, and pulling back the previous big lead the government was enjoying. His tax policies, nationalisation policies, and big-spending promises about health reforms and better housing were beginning to capture the imagination of voters, after all. His latest speech about terrorism was a good one, designed to try to set this country on the road to peace, at the expense of money lost to the arms industry, and a cooling down of our relationship with America.

And we couldn’t have that, could we? That just wouldn’t do.

Trump’s hair

This is a short post about something that is causing me some concern.

Ever since Donald Trump first came to my attention, I have been fascinated by his strange hairstyle. Not just the colours, which are interesting enough in themselves, but also the strange way that he styles it to disguise any baldness, and to achieve what he must believe is something attractive to behold.

To be honest, I did wonder that anyone could take a man with hair like that seriously, let alone elect him to the most important office in the world. Had I been an American voter in 2016, I would never have been able to get past that hair, whatever his policies. It would have been a case of a vote lost for want of a hairstyle, that’s for sure.

When he was elected, I felt sure that he would modify his coiffure, and appear with something more dignified, and better suited to his important role on the world stage. But no, he carried on with the intricate combing-over of hair that resembled soft straw, seemingly unaware of how it enabled him to be further mocked.

Last week, I was watching him being interviewed by a reporter. He sat forward excitedly in his chair, like a teenager making a point that was important to him. His answers were full of contradictions, and he really didn’t come up with a convincing reply to any of the probing questions. The news moved on to a different story, and I forgot about it after a while.

Sometime later that evening, it occurred to me that I hadn’t noticed the President’s hair. After his 100+ days in office, it seemed that I was actually becoming used to this clownish style, and beginning to accept it as perfectly normal.

Now THAT is worrying!

Preaching to the converted

The UK general election campaign is up and running again, after attention was focused on France over the weekend. I have just been watching Jeremy Corbyn giving a heartfelt speech on the BBC News. His rather stumbling style is quite endearing in many ways, and the absence of slick oration and stage-managed key points also refreshing to see.

He came up with some great ideas of course. A better NHS, a fairer society, the end of privatisation of industry and utilities, and increased taxation on the rich. Yesterday, his shadow chancellor made a speech about how Labour might pay for all their promises, despite pledging not to raise taxes on anyone earning £80,000 a year, or less. This is far higher than the average wage in this country of course. I suspect that the majority of the population would consider someone wih an income of £80,000 to be very well off indeed. So, Labour attempted to sweep in the affluent middle classes yesterday, then Corbyn returned to appeal to the poor and hard-working this morning.

Listening to the Labour leader today, I found myself liking most of what he had to say. He has in roots in the Socialist origins of that party, yet current trends have forced him to temper his one-time radical enthusiasm. Bold claims to build one million new houses are best taken with a pinch of salt though, as are some of his other rather fantastic promises. But he can afford to make such promises, as he knows he is unlikely to ever be in a position to have to deliver on them. He can boast of a minimum wage increase, huge additional investment into the NHS, and getting a Brexit deal that leaves the UK in a strong trading position. He might just as well say that he will pay for a holiday in Florida for every family in Britain, or give every pensioner free electricity, and a new car. He can say anything, because he will never have to prove the truth of his words.

Jeremy Corbyn enjoys huge support within his own party. He has won two leadership elections, and survived the backstabbers among his Labour colleagues in Westminster. But the hard truth is that the Labour Party has never been in a worse place, and never before faced a potential defeat of such proportions. OK, they will probably get my vote, but that will make little difference in a county dominated by the government party. UKIP may have also lost any influence in the country as a whole, but their votes will not be going to Labour. They will be bolstering Conservative majorities instead.

As Jeremy made his speech today, he must have been encouraged by the cheering from the audience, and the whoops of delight as he drove home each point. The applause was genuine, and the enthusiasm palpable. You might have believed that he could become a real leader, a man of substance.

But he was preaching to the converted.

A bogus retirement

If you tune into any UK news media today, you cannot avoid the breathtaking news that the Duke of Edinburgh has retired from public life. Tributes to the 96 year-old are flooding in, and I am literally choking on a sea of superlatives and gushing praise. How many foreign trips he took. How many speeches he made. How many times he appeared in public. What a rock solid support he was for the Queen. And on and on. Oh, and on…

All of this exceedingly comfortable and well rewarded ‘hard work’ was for ‘our benefit’, apparently. Walking around behind your wife with your hands in your pockets, waving to a crowd from the interior of a Rolls-Royce, and muttering to film stars as you attend a premiere. It’s a miracle he lasted this long, with such arduous travails. Fighting to stay awake during boring banquets, and speeches in foreign languages might well be considered to be the ‘pit face’ in some circles. But not in mine.

In a country where basic living benefits are being withheld from the poor and the sick, and a huge percentage of the population are struggling to live on the minimum wage, and no-hours contracts, celebrating the idle life of this overpaid hanger-on is bordering on the obscene. While we are at it, let’s gloss over his racist remarks about ‘Chinky-eyes’, and ‘Darkies’ too. After all, he was only being amusing, and he’s married to the Queen.

To say he is retiring is a classic misnomer. You cannot retire from a job that was never a job. How can you retire from shooting wild birds, riding around in coaches, travelling from one luxury home to another, or cruising around on your sumptuous yacht? The man has not done a day’s work since he walked out of Westminster Abbey with the Queen on his arm, in 1947.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I am not a Royalist.